At the start of our 2019 Digital Detox, Dr. Sarah Lohnes Watulak and I wrote that “we must realize that the web is not a welcoming place for large numbers of marginalized people.”
Today, as the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened our use of digital tools and platforms, amplifying their impacts on our lives, I want to take that statement a step further:
We must realize that the web and digital platforms exclude, disenfranchise, and harm large numbers of marginalized people. Our inattention to those harms exacerbates them.
I know that’s a hard statement to swallow, especially if privilege has shielded you from these harms. But unless we come to terms with this reality, marginalized folks and communities will continue to face the harshest impacts of this pandemic, including the differential impacts caused by or related to digital technologies, platforms, and the web.
We have seen many examples of how the pandemic exposed and exacerbated the real digital divide–not between younger people and older people (which is often how the digital divide is characterized)–but between folks who have access to reliable, affordable, and safe digital technologies and platforms and those who do not.
As an educator, I’ve been particularly attuned to the equity and inclusion issues the pandemic has caused for students. It’s heartbreaking to hear and read stories about young people who sat outside of restaurants and cafes to use their free WiFi to be able to complete their coursework. That isn’t just a hardship, it’s a harm. Through open WiFi networks, those students are exposed to horrific privacy and data violations. They are harmed in their learning–sitting outside a Taco Bell to do class work, or from a car, is harmful to learning.
We read and hear stories of students facing invasive intrusions and biases from online proctoring companies used for remote assessment proctoring and grading. Automated proctoring software flags “suspicious” behavior it associates with cheating but can sometimes flag non-cheating behaviors like moving your mouth while reading, having ADHD, and having darker skin. This isn’t just a hardship, it’s a harm. Students report extreme stress caused by these technologies as they (or the people those companies hire to watch students) monitor and assess them. BIPOC students, non-binary or trans, and neuro-divergent students, in particular, face risks beyond stress, often being flagged as suspicious and having to carry the extra burden of demonstrating their integrity.
The 2021 Digital Detox will provide an opportunity for all of us to dig into these issues (and more!) and reflect on our own experiences of issues of digital equity and inclusion, whether we experience those issues from a position of privilege or a position of disenfranchisement. It will provide resources, readings, and strategies to consider as we try to negotiate and reverse the harms caused by the pandemic’s digital push. We’ll dig into issues we’ve brought up in previous detoxes, and explore new topics as well. We welcome you to join us on yet another Digital Detox journey!