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Faulty Metaphors and the Digital Divide

It cannot be forgotten that the modern-day Internet formed out of ARPANET’s creation of a military-industrial elite; one that was singularly owned and available to governmental bodies who had complete autonomy over its function. Although there has been a significant shift from this incredibly centralized model, today’s more accessible citizen-to-citizen network has faults of its own. There are plenty of computational metaphors that circulate public discourse, but one in particular has proven to be a threat to equal opportunity and free expression— that the Internet grants a voice to all global citizens, allowing for fluid participation and a productive self-governing.

Computer-mediated communications are typically attributed to the breakdown of hierarchical barriers and norms. The Internet’s implications extend much further than its surface-level appeal to elicit this sense of openness, however. The unfortunate truth that today’s Internet is associated with unequal dissemination and universal disconnection is certainly not easy to accept. The Internet does not, in fact, enable every social group to the same extent. Regulatory measures and certain spatial policies unequally distribute opportunities, access and the resources necessary to use the medium.

One of these policies falls in the hands of censorship and legal terms. It is a common practice to correlate Internet restriction to China, who has been taught in the West to have a rich history in online censorship. Censorship practices occur in North America just as they do in China, only they operate by contrasting means. With American’s growing knowledge of the NSA monitoring their digital communications, many have been persuaded to self-censor non-conformist opinions. While America’s censorship may be more internally facilitated on a citizen-based level and China’s censorship more of an authoritative from-the-top method, both bring forth the truth that the metaphor pushes to the shadows— that the Internet facilitates an inability for all citizens to feel the safety to express themselves transparently. This is not a network of fluid participation. This a network that can cause a closed feedback loop of information pieces and opinions that are formed on the sole basis of social acceptability.

Before one is able to be a participative member of the Internet, the proper mechanisms are required. It is widely known that a network connection and a medium to use that connection on, are necessary to access the Internet. This being said, it is not as widely known that many citizens lack the privilege to secure these two things. A citizen’s ability to express their viewpoints online can be directly hindered by their educational, economic, domestic and social background. This makes for a structure that is dependent on all of its users to obtain a connection with a disregard to the possible conditions of economic challenge and other forms of discrepancy.

Ultimately, the metaphor of freedom and global openness uniquely benefits only specific parties— people like the CEOs of large corporations and the heads of governmental bodies. They decide how meaning is created and in turn, by whom. Whether it be via email, social media or other digital services, the means of communication and freedom of expression are disproportionately decided by these groups of centralized power.

This metaphor passively ignores the systemic inequality, control and restriction that is a subset of the Internet. It is unclear if this metaphor will be disentangled, as those in control of the Internet greatly prosper from the illusion of liberation and equal opportunity. If we want to use the Internet as a community building service, the pitfalls must be reconstructed in a way that does not hinder freedom of expression. It is true that free flowing participation presents a risk of conflict, but in order to live in a fully democratic society, it is mandatory.

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