July 08, 2003

The Wetware of the Digital Divide

Eszter Hargittai worries not about the hardware or the software but about the... wetware, I guess, of the "digital divide":

Eszter's Blog Entry: "It is not Google but search savvy that may make the Web God, and only for some" (07/08/2003): ...Results from a study I conducted on average users’ ability to find information on the Web suggest that there is great variance in whether people can locate different types of content online and their efficiency in doing so. These findings imply that simply offering an Internet connection to those without access will not alleviate differences or the so-called "digital divide".... Referring to Google has become the high-culture status symbol of Web use. When presented with an information-seeking task, the supposed savvy searcher quickly suggests the use of Google. However, just like simply referring to the latest opera at the Met should not be equated with expertise in the genre, a throwaway comment about Google should not make us think that people know how to find information online...

Others discuss the same issue, but from a different perspective:

Alcibiades: I would recommend, for that, Jack Balkin at Yale and taxpolicy.blogspot.com.

Thrasymachus: Amazing. What else useful is there on the internet that I do not know about?

Alcibiades: A great deal. This is why Hal Varian has been known to say that in the future the librarians will rule the world: in the future the answers to all questions will be on the internet--but nobody except librarians who understand search and classification will be able to find anything.

Thrasymachus: Google?

Alcibiades: The rewards to gaming Google are just too great, and it is just too small. Think of the Treasury Department lawyers in the Office of Tax Policy versus the collective private-sector tax bar of America.

Thrasymachus: Hmmm... I suspect the advantage to the well-connected, those in the intellectual "know", is increasing rapidly. For instance, observe how useful the website for the New York Review of Books is for quickly getting an undergrad-level understanding of almost any field of academic inquiry in the humanities. The gap between (i) a bushy-tailed undergrad w/ a subscription to the New York Review website w/ archives and (ii) an average undergrad in section must be pretty darn large--significantly larger than in our day.

Alcibiades: But in our day the back issues of the NYRB were on the second level of Lamont, easy to consult *if* you wanted to spend time in the library. There *is* however, a big difference between slogging up to the library through the February snow and then laboriously searching through issue cover page after cover page in the hope of finding something useful on the one hand, and forty-five keystrokes from the comfort of one's dorm room on the other.

Thrasymachus: There is indeed. Only sheer intellectual curiosity tuned to a fever pitch, or a more-than-undergraduate realization that you need to really impress at least three of your section leaders in order to get three superb letters of recommendation can drive one outside into the Cambridge winter to make the cold, wet trek to Lamont to do unassigned reading.

Alcibiades: And isn't it the same for unassigned surfing?

Thrasymachus: No. It is not. Only the real weirdos--excuse me, I meant the future Ivy-class university professors--would trek to Lamont then. The barriers to information access are so much lower now. Back then the barriers to information access were so high that only the truly demented future academics made the library their friend. Now the barriers are low--and so you merely have to be clued-in and have a little extra cash.

Alcibiades: But is the difference really that great?

Thrasymachus: Yes, it is. The key is the ability to search. Remember, you do not know ahead of time if there is anything useful on The Roman Revolution in the New York Review of Books, or even in what decade it might have been published. How long would it have taken to go through every cover page since 1970? One hour? Two hours? And even then you might well miss it.

Alcibiades: That is a good point, Thrasymachus.

Thrasymachus: By contrast, the time elapsed just now in pulling up "The Emperor of Roman History" by G. W. Bowerstock from the March 6th 1980 edition of the New York Review of Books? 25 seconds! (Admittedly w/ a fast, well-maintained T-1 line.) It looks as though I could have read this review, quite thoroughly, in 10 to 15 minutes. Follow that with 30 to 40 minutes perusing the reserved reading in The Roman Revolution and I would have been far, far better prepared for my sophomore history tutorial than I ever was in reality--even when I had spent 4 or 5 hours going through the reading laboriously.

Alcibiades: And this is a good thing, no? People find it easier to learn. They become better educated.

Thrasymachus: Children sent to private school and children of infovore parents who get clued-in and well-connected to how to make the internet their friend find it easier to learn and become better educated.

Alcibiades: Hmmm...

Thrasymachus: If you go to public school and have non-infovore parents, it will never occur to you that the online archives of the NY Review of Books will make your humanities courses much easier.

Alcibiades: It's a force multiplier. But a force multiplier that further stratifies our society. Is that what you are saying?

Thrasymachus: Yes. Exactly. And so it is obvious what we should do.

Alcibiades: Obvious?

Thrasymachus: Our children are still young. We have plenty time to teach them...

Posted by DeLong at July 8, 2003 07:34 PM | TrackBack

Comments

Nice piece Just one small quibble. Instead of pulling - "The Emperor of Roman History" by G. W. Bowerstock from the March 6th 1980 edition of the New York Review of Books? - it might have been more useful to have found something on:

The Emperor in the Roman World

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0801410584/qid=1057730921/sr=1-7/ref=sr_1_7/102-2527860-5350532?v=glance&s=books

I must declare an interest since I attended Millar's classes at one point.

The Amazon review (another alternative to the NYRB) being of little assistance since the book like so many other worthy classics is now 'temporarily unavailable' and there is no additional information provided.

Posted by: Edward Hugh on July 8, 2003 11:19 PM

Whoops. Sorry about the multiple trackbacks. I tried to make it stop--I swear!

Posted by: Walter on July 9, 2003 02:16 AM

>there is great variance in whether people can locate different types of content online and their efficiency in doing so. These findings imply that simply offering an Internet connection to those without access will not alleviate differences or the so-called "digital divide"....

Where is the indignant pontification about "growing inequality" in this sphere, and how it calls into question the moral justice of the social contract?

I have no doubt that those least able to successfully navigate Google are those disadavataged by social forces beyond their control -- failing, underfunded public schools, the legacy of slavery/Jim Crow, etc.

I propose Digital Justice: A 1/100 cent tax on every Google click, to fund Search Savvy curricula in our schools.

It would be cheap. It would be fair.

Only the selfish and indifferent, those who, as was said of Dan Quayle, were born on third base and think they hit a triple, could oppose this.

/tongue-in-cheek

Posted by: Bucky Dent on July 9, 2003 03:46 AM

George Bush was the one who was said to have been born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.

George W Bush was born on home plate and thinks he hit a home run.

Dan Quayle was born on third base and thinks he ran a touchdown.

Google skills seem more like a social leveller to me. Is there any more effective way to reduce a young person's future income than interesting him or her in the humanities? (Unless it's cruising the blogs when he should be working...)

Posted by: msw on July 9, 2003 06:17 AM

"...The best put-down of Dan Quayle I ever heard (and there are so many good ones to choose from) was that he was "born on third base and thought he hit a triple...."

http://www.schindler.org/psacot/20011126.html

Paul E. Schindler Jr.
November 26, 2001

Posted by: Bucky Dent on July 9, 2003 06:28 AM

Bucky, you've missed the ball...see, Bush Sr. played baseball...anyway, the joke was definitely around during Bush Sr's time, and it was told about Bush (and attributed to Tom Harkin, Ann Richards, and a few others). Citing a confused Paul Schindler isn't sufficient to overturn this reality. The jokes for Bush Jr. and Dan 'beakon' Quayle were variations on the theme.

Posted by: Ben Vollmayr-Lee on July 9, 2003 06:43 AM

The joke I recall about Bush Sr. was Ann Richards' jibe that he was "born with a silver foot in his mouth".

Anyway, I apologize for inadvertantly giving rise to "thread drift".

Posted by: Bucky Dent on July 9, 2003 06:48 AM

I did the research, I'm gonna post it.
David Nyhan in the Boston Globe:
"I thought a lot more of Texans when they elected Ann Richards governor. Her putdown of Bush Sr. -- "he was born on third base and thought he hit a triple" -- is an all-timer in my book."
http://www.boston.com/news/politics/campaign2000/news/Deep_in_the_heart_of_hexes.shtml

Robert Novak on Crossfire:
BEGALA: Well, would -- now wait a minute. This is a woman who worked her up way up from welfare to the United States Congress as opposed to our president who was born with a silver spoon and a trust fund.
And good for him he made a success, but he started out on third base. He thought he hit a triple, as my friend Jim Hightower likes to say.
NOVAK: The...
BEGALA: God bless Lynn Woolsey...
NOVAK: And then...
BEGALA: ... for coming up from poverty.
(CROSSTALK)
NOVAK: I think that was Ann Richards' line before Jim Hightower...
BEGALA: I figure it -- it might have been Ann. One of my great fellow Texans.
NOVAK: It was Ann Richards. But, as a matter of fact, you -- do you make it your business to take every issue and attack our good president of the United States on that issue?
http://www.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0306/20/cf.00.html

What is this thread about again?

Posted by: x on July 9, 2003 06:55 AM

I've long thought that many of those who disparage the web, particularly in regards to the quantity of bogus information, simply don't have the combination of critical and technical skills to utilize it effectively.

In terms of technical skills, I think that it takes a bit of insight to craft productive web searches. I can usually find things that other people can't simply because I carefully select my combinations of search terms.

In terms of critical skills, the vast proliferation of information, good and bad, is a boon to me because I had previously developed the critical skills necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff. People who don't already know how to think critically, who don't know to automatically be suspicious of *all* sources, find themselves lost on the web when their expectation is to easily find an authority they can implicitly trust. For this reason, I feel that the web is a sort of wake-up call for people who have been so damn intellectually lazy that they've formed all their views on the basis of a few, unquestioned authorities. But then, I'm an optimist. Maybe it won't work that way.

What a sorry and sad thought--the idea of humanities students forming their ideas on the basis of the New York Review of Books. But then, I suppose I should recognize that so much of academic success is being savy as to what is intellectually au currant.

Posted by: Keith M Ellis on July 9, 2003 07:33 AM

Aha! This IS pertinent to the thread. Convential Wisdom is that the third base quote is Richards'. However, it is NOT in the transcript of her speech. I originally 'googled' for the quote using 'Richards' as a search word, but I was suspicious about the lack of a definitive quote. Removing Richards from the search made it clear that she did not say the phrase in question:

"Texas Democrat Jim Hightower tossed off a lethal line about the father: that he was "born on third base and thought he hit a triple," which more than one adversary has applied to the son."
http://www.time.com/time/campaign2000/story/textframe_dynasty1.html

And this seems pretty conclusive:
Hunger report bites Bush
By Jim Hightower
At the 1988 Democratic convention in Atlanta, I gave a podium-pounding speech in which I characterized George Bush the Elder as “a man who was born on third and thought he’d hit a triple.”
http://www.agrnews.org/issues/73/commentary.html

Richards DID say the GHWB was 'born with a silver foot in his mouth.' (W's response: "It was mean and uncalled-for," he said. "It didn't bother my dad. He's lived with 'Doonesbury,' so he's used to that. But it hurt my mother."
http://www.austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2000-10-13/pols_feature8.html)

This just goes to confirm Brad's point - search ability matters. How you search can determine your results.

Posted by: x on July 9, 2003 07:47 AM

Interestingly relevant. :)

I distinctly recalled the phrase used on Quayle, but never on Bush. So I googled Quayle +third +triple to locate the quote I posted.

Posted by: Bucky Dent on July 9, 2003 07:56 AM

Interesting. So Begala had it right, and Novak knowingly and wrongly corrected him.

Harkin did have the line about Bush Sr.'s idea of solving a domestic problem is firing the maid and yelling at the butler. A misattribution of the 3rd base/triple quote to Tom Harkin is here: www.wam.umd.edu/~mturn/WWW/handout1.rtf

Posted by: Ben Vollmayr-Lee on July 9, 2003 07:59 AM

"If you go to public school and have non-infovore parents, it will never occur to you that the online archives of the NY Review of Books will make your humanities courses much easier."

Hmm.

Is that such a high barrier to entry? Aren't public-school students likely to stumble on the NYRB archives through random chance? There's so many great articles in there that it's fairly common to see NYRB articles posted on newsgroups and on blogs. And it's not uncommon to find a NYRB author index page in the search results when looking up a particular writer. (That's how I discovered the NYRB.)

What's likely to be more of a barrier is _literacy_. NYRB articles have amazing depth, and they're often written by experts in the field, but you need to have good reading skills to be able to understand them.

For a hilarious and somewhat scary example of bad reading skills, check out the first user-contributed review of George Kennan's "American Diplomacy" on the Amazon website:
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0226431479/

A quote: "I have noticed how Kennan likes to go and use these very hard words to describe things, and I mean that these are the types of words that you have trouble pronouncing and knowing the definition of." The reviewer is an undergrad, not a high school student.

Posted by: Russil Wvong on July 9, 2003 12:00 PM

Bucky Dent writes:

> I propose Digital Justice: A 1/100 cent tax on every Google
> click, to fund Search Savvy curricula in our schools.

I know you're making a funny, but I think it is worth noting that, at this point, if Google started to charge 100 times as much as you suggest (one penny per search), I'm pretty sure that:

1) The number of searches would not go down.
2) Everybody would be end up paying even if they weren't cheerful about it.
3) The additional taxes paid on this income would be much higher than any per-click tax.

Really. Right now, google does more than 200 million searches per day. I have no reason to believe they won't be doing 1 billion searches per day inside of 5 years. A one penny per search fee on one billion searches would put their daily take at $10 million, and their annual take *just for this* at $3.65 billion.

OK, so I'm kidding a little bit about them charging individual users (although they could certainly offer this as a premium service, or charge institutions in charge of an IP block). But I do think they should be aiming to earn at least this much revenue on each click, and I think that they will get it and possibly a lot more. At this point, it is difficult for me to escape the conclusion that Google will become one of the most profitable and largest (by revenue) companies on the planet.

Posted by: Jonathan King on July 9, 2003 12:52 PM

>Google will become one of the most profitable and largest....

Old Wall Street wisdom, forgotten during the bubble, holds that the most dangerous person in the world is a tech stock analyst with a ruler.

Posted by: Bucky Dent on July 9, 2003 01:00 PM

All of the search ability won't do any good if the stuff you're looking for isn't anywhere on the web. In the ca. 3700 footnotes in my book on ancient and medieval Sardinia there are probably a couple of hundered URLs and an approximately equal number of references to venerable issues of Notizie degli Scavi.

Posted by: R. Rowland on July 9, 2003 02:26 PM

1) The number of searches would not go down.

I think this is absolutely wrong, and is a mistake that has been made many, many times before. I used to bookmark interesting sites before; now I never do because it's just easier to use Google to find them again, and maybe serendipitously come across something else while I'm at it. I also use Google to read USENET on a fairly regular basis. If I had to pay money to use Google, my usage would go way down. Not by an order of magnitude, perhaps, but close.

Posted by: Jake McGuire on July 9, 2003 09:27 PM

Bucky Dent writes:
> [Jonathan King wrote]
> > Google will become one of the most profitable and
> > largest....
>
> Old Wall Street wisdom, forgotten during the bubble, holds
> that the most dangerous person in the world is a tech
> stock analyst with a ruler.

Well, I'm not a tech stock analyst. And in this case, actually, my confidence is based on the fact that you *can't buy* Google stock. There are crudely only two reasons to take a company public. The first is to raise capital for the firm, and the second is to allow insiders to cash out. Google has not IPOed and, to my knowledge, has no immediate plans to do so. At first blush, this can only mean that they don't need any capital beyond what they have already gotten from backers, and said backers and founders are apparently really happy with the return they are getting so far. So what we are talking about is a company so successful that its name has become a verb in the language, that is widely believed to have an overwhelming market position and a positive cash flow, and is clearly still growing, to boot. And they don't need investors.

I dunno, but that sounds like a pretty good bet to me.

Posted by: Jonathan King on July 10, 2003 07:56 AM

Jake McGwire writes:
> [Jonathan King writes]
> > 1) The number of searches would not go down.
>
> I think this is absolutely wrong, and is a mistake that has
> been made many, many times before.

Well, first one clarification. I did not mean that individuals would not reduce the number of searches they make, just that I didn't think it would lead to a reduction in the number of searches made overall because Google is still growing so quickly. That said, I'm now convinced I'm wrong. :-) Google's fastest growth is in places like China, where I don't think you could really charge anything like a penny per search.

As far as people not paying for content on the 'net goes, that is a point...but I think it really only applies in situations where there is an easy (free) substitute still available. So nobody is going to pay for stuff at salon.com if there are millions of other witty pundits out there you can read for free. Nobody is going to pay deja.com (remember them?) very much if some other site still has a free news archive, etc. It is an ugly history.

OK, now, so let's pretend Google starts charging US users a penny per search. What are youe options? Well, you could pay the "google" tax that might run up all the way to $100 per year if you're a searchaholic, but is probably much less (and might be covered for you by your ISP). Or you might use another search engine. OK now, stop laughing...

In all seriousness, I do not really see any substitute for google, and I would not really feel I had much of a choice if it came down to paying something I could afford versus doing without. I just *can't* stop anytime I want, anymore.

Posted by: Jonathan King on July 10, 2003 09:21 AM
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