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“What Would Du Bois Say About the Information Revolution?”

W.E.B. Du Bois Lecture Series, Harvard University

Notes On Three Lectures:

Using the work of W.E.B. Du Bois as a starting point, I wanted these three Lectures to explore the multiple dimensions of inequality, diversity and exclusion in the transition from an industrial to a post industrial, digital society.

The guiding question: “What would W.E.B. Du Bois say about our information revolution, with its social media and reliance on specialized knowledge networks, if he came back today — especially their implications for communities of color and the economically and politically disadvantaged?”

Lecture One, “What the Transition to a Digital Society Means for Those at the Bottom,” sets the stage – why is the topic of digital exclusion and inclusion so important for scholars and practitioners alike? And why is it costly for America to ignore it? I criticize narrow, misleading and all-too-prevalent techno-determinist approaches and contrast them to socially-determined, historically-rooted models of technology diffusion and appropriation.

Drawing from my own work on network exclusion, the digital divide and other framings in the U.S., Africa, Brazil and China, I offer a modified structural approach that I believe is best able to explain the benefits of inclusion and the costs of exclusion.

My “Communication at the Center” (C@C) model demonstrates how communication and media have become central to shaping the lives of individuals, organizations and societies.

As Du Bois traced the position of African Americans in the transition from an agricultural to an industry-based society, I examine the status of African Americans in the transition from industry to a networked knowledge society. I show that precisely because media and information assets are worth trillions of dollars in the global economy and because they increasingly shape popular perceptions of social reality, ownership and management of these scarce resources are hotly contested and in these contests black Americans have not fared well, whether in Hollywood or Silicon Valley.

Lecture Two, Policy Responses to Digital Inequality: Beyond Economics, drills down and applies my C@C / strategic re-structuring model to show how power, influence and public policy have been deployed to shape, and to often deflect, black ownership and management in legacy and new media while actively seeking black consumers.

The past decade-and-a-half has seen several pivotal instances of struggles to expand African American participation in both the legacy media and the new digital media, most notably the recent COMCAST-NBC / Universal settlement, earlier affirmative actions to use tax certificates to promote minority ownership and entrepreneurial efforts in Silicon Valley that created Net Noir and Black Planet, up to current black-themed web sites like The Root and The Griot.

These efforts are critical because they involve ownership and management strategies, not just to expand audiences and other consumption (i.e. games). Each of the examples that I use in this lecture reveals the challenges and opportunities that occur when African Americans try to influence the process of bringing communication to the center by changing ownership.

If black people have become great consumers of media, why have there been so few black successes in media ownership and management and what can be done to change this?

Lecture Three is titled, “Structure, Agency and Culture in Digital Societies: Struggles at Home and Abroad.” Power, knowledge and struggles over diverse forms of inclusion and exclusion are expressed in several domains.

One is outward-looking, as Latinos, Asians and African Americans struggle to influence the policies of governments, philanthropies and others to favor their interests. A big struggle is ‘simply’ to re-redefine the very meaning of ‘diversity in a digital age.’

Other dynamics are more internal, as people of color look inward to nurture their own communities’ conversations, as with current efforts to define an online “black public sphere.”In the former case, I report on a continuing effort by thirty scholars and activists around the country, led by the USC Annenberg School, on a contract with the Federal Communication Commission to update its old definition of diversity, and thereby reform its regulatory policies.

In the latter case, I explore whether the explosion of the new information revolution has enhanced or weakened black public discourse. Has the eclipse of Black Scholar and the Crisis, and the demise of iconic platforms for progressive black thought such as the Black World, been offset (or indeed worsened?) by the Internet, whether by Google or even online black-themed sites like The Root or The Griot (owned by mainstream media publications, not black owners)? These challenges are not restricted to black intellectuals but are faced by thoughtful people around the world.

So what can scholars, intellectuals and digital pioneers do next in light of these observations and critiques? At the conclusion of Lecture Three I propose concrete actions that institutions and individuals can pursue to better understand and better influence these hugely important issues of collective and individual action. Indeed, at the core of these lectures is the age-old scholarly tension between structure and individual agency.

At the end of the day, how much freedom do any of us have individually, and through our various collectivities, to employ media technologies to be masters of our fate? Without an active and engaged African American media sphere, we may witness the slow decline of the black community as we have come to know it over the past ten generations. And like the proverbial canary in the mine, what does this portend for other communities and individuals seeking to assert their unique identities in the 21st century?