Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age

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Citation: Virginia Eubanks (2011) Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age.


Tagged: Sociology (RSS) NatematiasGenerals (RSS), participation (RSS), participatory design (RSS), cognitive justice (RSS), digital divide (RSS), troy NY (RSS), YWCA (RSS), digital labor (RSS), feminism (RSS)


In Digital Dead End, Virginia Eubanks offers an important critique of distributive access and education models of empowerment through technology, what Eubanks calls "magical thinking" that IT could "level the playing field," enhance equality and support government accountability. Eubanks argues that this myth ignores the deeper problems in society and can "deepen inequality rather than alleviate it."

Eubanks tells the story of years of work in collaboration with women at the YWCA in Troy-Cohoes New York, where Eubanks carried out a long-term collaboration with a home of 90 women, especially the "Women at the YWCA Making Social Movement" (WYMSM) group. Through the book Eubanks opens with the story of her own attempts to develop technology training programs at the YWCA and the interruption of her work by women whose experiences challenged the preconceptions she was bringing. The book then continues in two sections. In the first, Eubanks offers a powerful critique of the technology empowerment narrative, grounded in the experiences of women at the YWCA community. In the second part of the book, Eubanks offers a call for "popular technology," that acknowledges people's experience of technology and focuses on "nurturing critical technological citizenship."


Eubanks employs a rich set of research methods in this project, drawing from participatory action research and reflexive self-disclosure, that invites and supports multiple voices in addition to her perspective as a researcher. When Eubanks writes about ideas, she contrasts her experience of those ideas as a privileged white middle class woman with the very different experience of technology among people who are socially located differently in relation to society's power structures. Along the way, she uses her own process of learning as a rhetorical guide to readers who may share a distributive view of technology empowerment.

Throughout the book, Eubanks:

  • asks participants to react to the scholarly ideas she's exploring
  • asks participants to doodle their reactions and alternatives
  • includes page-long reflections from WYMSM participants
  • situates the economic data about Troy in relation to broader economic trends
  • carries out projects defined with and by WYSM participants
  • conducts participatory action research, "research that promotes concrete change by generating and assisting ordinary people's analysis and action" (106), citing work by Borda[1], Kenneth Reardon, and J. Williams as inspirations.
  • uses methods of participatory design[2]
  • pays research participants stipends as a way to increase the diversity and objectivity of participants


In the opening chapter, Eubanks tells a series of stories:

  • Eubanks shares own background in activism and dot com technology leading into her (initially misconceived) work with the YWCA, the story of Ruth, a Puerto Rican wom and graduate student at within WYMSM who questioned scholarship about women and technology, and who argued that "technology is just a little part of it... it's not justice (8). Ruth joined the group in hopes of supporting technology "designed by women, for everybody," with a focus on people's well-being.
  • In contrast with Ruth's optimism, Eubanks tells the story of YWCA community members demolishing a non-working donated computer "with a palpable sense of glee." For many women at the YWCA, computers were "big infallible immortal objects" that shaped their lives at government and work environments; smashing it expressed their "conflicting emotions...anger...and cynicism" towards the positive role of technology in their lives.
  • The next framing story comes from a community role-play of the state of poverty where participants would play "bankers, pawnshop owners, welfare caseworkers, teachers, and police," and imagine forms of power in the town. Many of the players were people with personal experience of poverty, so they could educate the attendees about their experiences. Later, many of the participants reported "moments when new understandings were reached, new empathies formed across barriers of difference." Eubanks identifies this as a positive example of the power of participatory practice to offer "a moment when we all had hope."
  • Finally, Eubans explains the book as "a love story about collective process," rooted in the details and challenges of creating working relationships across difference in a struggle for change.

The Real World of Information Technology

In the second chapter, inspired by the work of Ursula M. Franklin,[3] Eubanks argues that the focus on access in technology policy at the time suffered from five main problems:

  • "Our ideas of equity and justice are... trapped in a distributive paradigm that understands high-tech equity only in terms of the availability of information" [4]. Eubanks argues that policies are often evaluated in terms of cost/benefit for individuals. Drawing from Young,[5] she argues that distributive approaches miss out on the role of social structure and context, focusing on fair distribution rather than justice.
  • "We ignore feminist insights about the impact of social location on all people's experiences with the tools of the information revolution." Eubanks argues for an "intersectional approach to studying social location and everyday life." Eubanks argues that feminist focuses on discourse, reproductive technologies, and IT employment pipelines focusing on "the absence of women in technology research, design, and use" by privileged women, missing out on "the experiences of women who inhabit vastly different social locations." Activists focus on the employed professional tech worker rather than the woman in a part-time call-center job or a woman who encounters a computer instead of a caseworker. (28-29)
  • "Our understandings of citizenship are too narrow." Eubanks argues that "the goal of high-tech equity programs should not be to create proficiency or technological skill but rather to produce critical technological citizens who can meaningfully engage and critique the technological present and respond to the citizenship and social justice effects of IT." (29)
  • "Our defitions of technology are too static... a set of artifacts, not as an assembly of practices of organizing the world that encode some norms, values, and ways of life at the expense of others." Rather than try to identify some universal truth about technology's relation to society, Eubanks cites Franklin in a desire to bring together provisional knowledge that can "hang together long enough to facilitate collaboration and produce social change" (31)
  • "Our methodology is neither adequately rigorous nor sufficiently modest. We too often go it alone, neglecting broadly participatory research and program design." Eubanks argues for a "popular technology" focused on "collectively produced analysis of structural inequality in our everyday lives [that] provides a source of empowerment, new knowledge and transformation" (32). Eubanks cites the Highlander Research and Education Center as an example of that methodology. `

Trapped in the Digital Divide

In this chapter, Eubanks offers an overview of the idea of the Digital Divide, which rose to prominence with the U.S. NTIA report on digital "'Have Nots' [6]. Faced with the possibility that access to Internet and telephony might leave some communities behind, huge government and NGO efforst were mobilized to broaden that access. In this chapter, Eubanks focuses on offering a critique of this perspective:

  • Why it was such a persistent idea
  • The problem with focusing on stuff rather than social problems
  • How these programs under-anticipated the resources and capabilities of local communities

Eubanks then shares the reactions of the women at the YWCA to digital divide literature. When asked to doodle their reactions, participants offered richer, more nuanced pictures of technology use that included social critique (worth looking through!). These women at the YWCA offered alternative pictures of the use of technology. In one case, a participant suggested that people on the "haves" side of the digital divide suffered from a lack of awareness that might be bridged through grassroots efforts to educate the "haves" (45).

Drawing from the contributions of the YWCA participants, Eubanks argues that we need to move from a distribution frame to a "justice" frame: "rather than thinking about access, we need to think about power" (48).

Drowning in the Sink or Swim Economy

Next, Eubanks explores the wider context of Troy, NY: its history, legacy of activism as far back as the 19th century, and their more recent attempt to re-energize what local politicians called the "tech valley." As Troy gentrified, housing became difficult to find: "the waiting list for downtown public housing was eighteen months long-- so long, in fact, that the housing authority had stopped accepting applications" (52). Supporters of tech growth in the city "argued that... technology and high tech economic growth are a route to empowerment of the poor and disenfranchised," while also supporting policies that displaced the vulnerable. In this chapter, Eubanks examinese these claims critically -- in order to understand the role of technology in people's lives, we also have to understand the community impact of tech industries:

  • Eubanks critiques narratives that praise job volatility as "more horizontal forms of power [that] free workers to retool their skills and renegotiate their work arrangements" (55) Examples include Kevin Kelly's New Rules for the New Economy and Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat and Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class. Instead, argues Eubanks, we get volatile continuity, a form of volatility that has a continuity with the "vulnerabilities and risk" that came before (56)
  • the "'job churn,' turnover, and mobility, and high level of skills obsolescence"[7] associated with tech further margnializes people who are already marginalized (61)
  • this transformation in the economy is directly related to economic incentives created by politicians to bring in high tech companies.
  • economic growth from high tech industries sharpen rather than reduce inequality, especially among marginalized groups like African Americans and Latinas and Hispanics (67)

In her interview material, Eubanks notes that "more than half of the residents I interviewed held jobs in data entry, call center customer service, telemarketing, telephone operating, and claims processing" -- all skills requiring computer skills. Three were programmers. And the Tech industry was employing them in "contingent, part-time, or temporary work" without healthcare, at "$7 or less and hour," at companies with very high turnover-- much less stable work than service industries (72-74).

The relationship between inequality and the tech industry is at the heart of Eubanks's critique of pipeline-focused efforts to broaden inclusion in high tech field and efforts to improve people's lives. "The exploitation of poor and working-class people--especially women-- makes the information economy possible," she argues (78a), and tech jobs "tend to increase poor and working-class women's economic vulnerability."

Technologies of Citizenship

In this chapter, Eubanks argues that a focus on access to technology prevents us from seeing the ways that technology is already present in people's lives in unjust ways, especially the way that government "IT often increased their [YWCA women's] personal vulnerability, constrained their opportunities, and made them deeply suspicious of the political process" (82). Across the U.S. social service system, surveillance technologies were widely deployed for "containment of social contagion, evaluation of moral suitability for inclusion in public life... and suppression of working people's resistance and collective power" (82).

Drawing from Langdon Winner's work on Autonomous Technology[8], who describes the way that artifacts have politics that serve wider purposes than their immediate use, and Lessig's idea of Code as Law, Eubanks highlights the "lack of democratic deliberation in the emerging technological constitution" (84).

Eubanks argues that "women in the YWCA community readily recognized how technology shapes their citizenship and opportunities for political mobilization" and "articulated sophisticated critiques of how IT is being used in increasingly disciplinary ways" (85). Drawing from Soss[9], she argues that many Americans gain their political education through interactions with the welfare office, an office that decreasingly interacts with people as citizens (89):

  • tracking and monitoring people's behavior
  • failing to reveal what it tracks or its principles of operation
  • fragmenting knowledge, misrepresenting people, and preventing case workers from holistically helping clients

In this context, "women in the YWCA community often saw themselves as canaries in the coal mine," explaining that "rich people were too insulated and naive to understand that the technologies that were tested in the welfare office would eventually be used on them" (97).

Popular Technology

Against this backdrop, Eubanks puts forward a vision for "popular technology" that "combine libratory education, research, and design techniques... with a commitment to high-tech equity at the YWCA." In the second half of the book, she shares the projects that offer examples of popular technology in practice:

  • the development of a community tech lab
  • the creation of an online Women's Resource Directory, an "asset-based community development tool" (109)
  • the design of a game: Beat the System: Surviving Welfare

For Eubanks, popular technology is "an approach to critical technological citienzhip education based on the insights of broadly participatory, democratic methods of knowledge generation" (104). Its goal is to "help everyday experts from a wide variety of social locations become more critical in their thinking by posing contradictions and problems in ways that lead them to the next stage in their analysis of the information age." It draws inspiration from the Settle House Movement and Jane Addams, the Highlander Folk School movement, and the work of Paulo Freire.

Eubanks describes the local projects as qualified successes. The computer lab struggled with funding difficulties, although it thrived for a two-year period when residents were given rent credit to help out. The resource directory was never completed and never launched. The Beat the System game design process generated critical reflection on the experience of public services through participatory persona design but was never built. Rather than focus on the technology outcomes, Eubanks encourages us to focus on the role that these project played "to foster critical technological citizenship." What matters is the "critical literacy and social change central to popular education" (126-7).

Cognitive Justice and Critical Technological Citizenship

Eubanks further develops her definition of technological citizenship in this chapter, where she focuses on the importance of "democratizing critiques of science and technology rather on public understanding of science or the consumption of science and technology products" (132). In the WYMSM group, women had a distrust of politics, prompted by their experiences with public services and their impression that traditional politics don't represent their interests (133). Auerbach argues that "popular technology helped women in the YWCA community develop a sense of entitlement to political articulation, provided a space for solidarity to grow, and increased participants' feelings of competence as political and technological citizens" (136). This focus on personal outcomes was important for Eubanks: "Though WYMSM often failed to follow through on our technological 'deliverables,' our projects and process did much to enrich women's already nascent sence of political competence and authority." The friendship, laughter, and personal growth were in tension with the desire to complete projects, both of which were undercut by the life challenges common to poor and working class women.

To address this, WYMSM paid participants an hourly stipend to participate. Eubanks argues that "the most unequivocal lesson WYMSM offers is that cross-class, inclusive participatory research cannot take place without some form of direct remuneration." And yet "managing the stipends was often difficult, emotionally loaded, and interpersonally tense," especially when Eubanks admittedly did not manage the stipends in a clear, consistent, transparent way (143).

What counts as success in popular technology? Reflection on the non-completion of the WYMSYM software game, Eubanks argues that "while the completion of technology design projects is important, popular technology must be judged on its success in helping participants recognize, reframe, and engage their political identities and power" (144). Eubanks ultimately evaluates the effect of the WYMSM project in terms of the other initiatives that were inspired and carried out at the YWCA and by WYMSM members, as a result of the process carried out at WYMSM.

Eubanks concludes by arguing for cognitive justice and epistemic liberation in place of delivery-focused, liberal ideas about community participation, which often don't allow community members meaningful power (see [10] in AcaWiki). The idea of cognitive justice, drawn from the work of Shiv Visvanathan[11][12] is focused on recognizing the standpoints of the marginalized and equalizing distinctions between experts and laypeople in the decision-making process.

A High Tech Equity Agenda

Eubanks concludes by arguing that "we must seek innovation and equity, economic growth and economic justice" (154). She admits that "it is difficult to programmatize popular technology" since it involves local communities in ownership and power and suggests instead that we evaluate technology initiatives in terms of "their ability to foster critical technological citizenship" along the following lines (155):

  • Is it popular technology
  • Does it resist oppression?
  • Does it draw on difference as a resource?
  • Does it engage in participatory decision-making?

Eubanks concludes the book with a wider set of political arguments focused on addressing the inequity associated with the high tech industry more generally.

Theoretical and practical relevance:

In this book, Eubanks offers a moving and powerful critique of digital divide and service provision approaches to technology. She also offers a wonderfully detailed and multi-voiced picture of years of collaboration in participatory action research. I appreciated how well she documents her methods, which makes this book an incredibly valuable resource for anyone interested in doing community-based work from a university.

I'm personally very sympathetic to the ideas of cognitive justice and support the vision of citizenship Eubanks outlines, but as a specialist designer of technology and quantitative researcher, I have a commitment to delivering projects that this work does not speak directly to. For me, the book opens an important, unanswered question about how to directly address and even change the broader technologies of control that seem more powerful than epistemological change within a small community. That's where Successor Systems, which use code and data to reshape a community's relationship to power, may well be a powerful direction. I'm looking forward to reading more of Jill Dimond[13] and Lily Irani's work as I explore these questions further. Natematias (talk) 00:50, 21 February 2015 (UTC)
One of my favorite scenes in the book is the story of Eubanks's first community meal at the YWCA, in which residents and staff make a building-wide dinner, serving around a hundred residents and guests. Eubanks writes beautifully and openly about the experience of encountering her "deep, socially embedded ignorance" to "face the challenging proposition that the women in the YWCA community were not so different from me after all." (104). Natematias (talk) 20:49, 21 February 2015 (UTC)

References of Note

  1. Wikipedia. Orlando Fals borda
  2. Schuler, D. Namioka, A. Participatory Design: Principles and Practices. Lawrence Earlbaum. 1993.
  3. Franklin, Ursula. The Real World of Technology. House of Anansi Press, June 199.
  4. Cozzens, Susan. Distributive Justice in Science and Technology Policy. Science and Policy, 2007.
  5. Young, Iris Marion. Justice and the Politics of Difference, Princeton University Press, 1990.
  6. NTIA. Falling Through the Net: A Survey of the "Have Nots" in Rural and Urban America. Dept of Commerce, 1995
  7. Benner, Chris. Work in the New Economy: Flexible Labor Markets in Silicon Valley. Wiley-Blackwell. 2002
  8. Winner, Langdon. Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought. MIT Press 1977
  9. Soss, Joe. Lessons of Welfare: Polic Design, Political Learning, and Political Action. American Political Science Review, vol 92, no 2. June 199
  10. Arnstein, Sherry R. 1969. “A Ladder of Citizen Participation.” Journal of the American Institute of Planners 35 (4): 216–24.
  11. Visnavathan, Shiv. A Carnival for Science: Essays on Science, Technology, and Development, Oxford University Press, 1997
  12. Visvanathan, S. 2005. Knowledge, justice and democracy. Pages 83–94 in M. Leach, I. Scoones, and B. Wynne, editors. Science and citizens. Orient Longman, New Delhi, India.
  13. Jill P. Dimond, Michaelanne Dye, Daphne Larose, and Amy S. Bruckman (2013) Hollaback!: The Role of Storytelling Online in a Social Movement Organization. Proceedings of the 2013 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work