The Promise of Access: Hope and Inequality in the Information Economy

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In 2013, a series of posters began appearing in Washington, DC’s Metro system. Each declared “The internet: Your future depends on it” next to a photo of a middle-aged black Washingtonian, and an advertisement for the municipal government’s digital training resources. This hopeful discourse is familiar but where exactly does it come from? And how are our public institutions reorganized to approach the problem of poverty as a problem of technology?

The Clinton administration’s ‘digital divide’ policy program popularized this hopeful discourse about personal computing powering social mobility, positioned internet startups as the ‘right’ side of the divide, and charged institutions of social reproduction such as schools and libraries with closing the gap and upgrading themselves in the image of internet startups. After introducing the development regime that builds this idea into the urban landscape through what I call the ‘political economy of hope’, and tracing the origin of the digital divide frame, this dissertation draws on three years of comparative ethnographic fieldwork in startups, schools, and libraries to explore how this hope is reproduced in daily life, becoming the common sense that drives our understanding of and interaction with economic inequality and reproduces that inequality in turn. I show that the hope in personal computing to power social mobility becomes a method of securing legitimacy and resources for both white émigré technologists and institutions of social reproduction struggling to understand and manage the persistent poverty of the information economy. I track the movement of this common sense between institutions, showing how the political economy of hope transforms them as part of a larger development project. 

This dissertation models a new, relational direction for digital divide research that grounds the politics of economic inequality with an empirical focus on technologies of poverty management. It demands a conceptual shift that sees the digital divide not as a bug within the information economy, but a feature of it.