Behind invisible bars

23 March 2015
23 Mar 2015
West Lafayette, IN
5 mins

It’s not often that I address you, the reader, directly in the posts here, but when I do I can’t make many of the assumptions I’m used to outside of the cyberspace. I can’t assume what country or background you come from, as what gender you identify or what political views you have. But I can assume one thing rather safely – that you have usable access to the Internet, and therefore you are probably moderately wealthy in the global scope, that you probably aren’t struggling every day to make it to the next meal or the next place to spend the night. In other words, the medium itself through which I communicate both define and restrict to whom I can speak and communicate, and this restriction may be imposing limits on the quality of important discussions taking place.

Of course, sometimes, a universal common ground is nice. For example, when I want to have a very technology-focused discussion (as I often do here), it’s convenient to have a certain assumed basis of what everyone knows about technology. But the Internet is a place for things far more impactful than just a passionate discussion on net neutrality or a rant on Internet popularity. It’s also a place for thoughtful conversations on the core issues that plague our society today, and often serves as a starting place for influential social movements in issues ranging from racism and equality to education and healthcare. And when these larger-scale discussions take place, the fact that everyone on the Internet necessarily shares certain things mean that there are always people left outside of the discussion – those who cannot afford or do not have access to the Internet are inherently left out of any discussion within it. This general statement is true for many places where important conversations take place, including periodicals, news publications, local and higher-level governments, and even schools. In all of these places, there are certain commonalities shared between everyone, and there are people who are necessarily left outside of the discussion taking place within.

The fact that the medium of discussion always leaves a group of people outside can have implications on the quality of the discussions themselves. A prime example is when technology companies like Facebook and Google, those who stand on the center stage of the tech landscape, approach the problem of expanding Internet access. The discussion of expanding Internet access is not at all about the people discussing the problem, the people on the Internet. The discussion is entirely about the people currently without the Internet. And when the conversations about them are happening almost exclusively on the Internet, there is an inherent disconnect between the discussion and the people to whom the discussion truly matters. In other words, the medium of the Internet limited who could participate in its discussions, and that created an issue when those outside of the medium of exchange were not represented in a discussion concerning them. Fortunately, Google and Facebook’s efforts are much greater in scale than the Internet itself, but this example makes clear there are limitations in even the single largest, most inclusive community on Earth.

When a discussion happens without the people to whom the issue really matters, it creates a situation where the people most important to the issue are not afforded a representation in the conversations about them. And when those people are not represented, they aren’t present to make their voices heard*. Naturally, the logic extends well beyond just the Internet. Both the legal system and schools necessarily suffer from the same problem of limitations. It’s for this exact reason that we celebrate when a minority finds his or her place in higher courts and offices, and we become skeptical towards a government dominated by one political view – because inclusivity is essential to a fair and productive government. It’s also for this reason that the Great Firewall of China exists, that we find it difficult to relate to those in relatively isolated areas of Africa and Russia alike. When people aren’t in our conversations, they aren’t in our minds, and that’s presumably what continues to happen in China and North Korea (to a far greater extent). But the status quo is leaving behind and leaving out those people that still matter. Despite the invisible bars of our mediums of exchange that separate us from other parts of humanity, there is no physical division, no physical line that separates us from them. So when we talk about helping farmers in South Africa or going behind the Great Firewall of China, when we discuss the lives in North Korea or the political oppression in Russia, often times, we’re missing the key perspectives that we need to make the best judgements about them.

In even the most inclusive network of people in human history, governments, economics, and natural limitations work together to make sure not everyone’s voices can reach the commons. And I think the greatest thing that we can do to make sure our conversations about the world stay relevant is to remember those who are left out of it, and to attempt our best to imagine their lives rather than fill their spaces with noise. It may be impossible to escape the invisible bars of the media, but while we’re stuck with them, the best we can do is to look through them.

* Sounds awfully familiar. No representation…

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