Access: Is it a right? And how do we make it meaningful?

Adam Banks‘ book Race, Rhetoric, and Technology left me thinking something like this:

“Hell yes! Wait, what am I supposed to do?”

I’m missing the call to action. Or I think I am. Banks’ parting admonition to “carry others” confuses me, reinforcing my belief that there were parts of this book that I just didn’t “get.” Any help would be welcome.

Here’s what I did get, including some points I like and some I don’t.

I love the argument Banks makes for meaningful technology access. He points out that providing someone with a computer and Internet connection is not the same thing as providing access. “Meaningful access to technology involves political power and literacies” (17). But the discussion of literacies in the text was, I thought, convoluted. Banks wonders why Black leaders sound white, why technological interfaces are white, why what we think of as Standard English is white English. These are valuable ponderings, and they leave me asking two pointed questions:

1) If Banks has a problem with how no one has taken up “non-standard” (for him, this is African American Vernacular English, but it encompasses a wide variety of Englishes) English as an academic form, then why is his book written in what could only be called Standard English? The answer is that SE is seen as the language of academics, which puts composition teachers like me in a difficult position. We want to allow space for non-standard literacies and dialects, but we know our students need to master SE in order to be successful in the endeavors they say they want to pursue. (Besides, being able to code switch between several dialects is empowering. Empowerment is a goal of teaching. How can we not teach SE?) Non-standard voices still are silenced in the workplace. Banks is just as caught in this trap as we are, although he does not address it.

2) And, given what we now know about meaningful access to technology, how are we supposed to teach about this technology without reinscribing standard views/uses and quashing the vibrant uses of technology that arise on their own in the Black community? This is where Banks does a truly awesome job giving teachers advice on how to provide meaningful access without forcing conformity. His list beginning on page 139 strikes me as a nice articulation of good pedagogy. (Go slow, let curriculum drive technology use, let students teach, etc.) He tells us that “we have to be willing to get lost together” (146). This is one area in which his call to action is clear.

While I love the notion of getting lost together, I resist the idea that we have to get lost together in our learning of specific technologies. Why is personal computer use such a huge issue?

I’m just not sure I take Banks’ point about the basic right of access. He mocks FCC chair Michael Powell when Powell facetiously refers to a “Mercedes Divide. I’d like to have one, but I can’t afford one” (34). But, though crass, I think this quote has merit. I, personally, do not have access to the quilting technologies Banks discusses in his final chapter. That’s unfortunate, and perhaps my life will be less rich because of it. But do I have a right to access to African American quilting technologies? I don’t think that I do. What material, survival-based use do they have for me?

Thinking about computer access in the same way raises some questions. I have a friend, a factory worker, who does not have a computer. Is he a “low-technology” person? Consider this: The factory he works in manufactures electrical boxes using giant, complicated machines … machines he can alter, fix, and even cause to break down when the social environment requires it. (Think of the Silicon Valley experience referred to in last week’s post.) What do you think he’d say if I told him he is on the wrong side of a Digital Divide and he’d better get a computer and let me teach him to use it? Talk about enforcing standards (and forcing out rich cultural practices). I think that much of the rhetoric about a digital divide devalues the technologies that are being used. While using a computer for a job search may be handy, we ought to consider that there are likely community-based methods for conducting a job search that might be easier, safer, and more productive.

Basically, I’m not convinced that access to a word processor and/or the Internet is a basic human right. It’s certainly not a necessity. Although I would support any philanthropic organization that tried to provide computers to those who want but can’t afford them, I do not understand why the government ought to provide everyone with a personal computer. And I don’t believe that everyone wants one, and I don’t believe those people are wrong or backward for not wanting one.

Wiring classrooms and providing meaningful access, though, is another matter. Computers are a valuable educational tool, and if all citizens are exposed to computers (with meaningful access) in the education system, then they can make an informed decision about their own access later in life. (I don’t have time to address here the problems with our education system not reaching everyone.)

There were several other things I didn’t “get” in this text. For example, I’d like to know how laws “continue to disproportionately imprison African American and Latino men” (91). I don’t dispute the veracity of this claim, and in fact it seems to me that it might parallel many of the claims I make in my work about the systematic oppression of women. But I’d like an articulation of how and where this discrimination is happening, because I truly don’t know what Banks is talking about. The only example given involves the application of law–when a black person receives the maximum penalty and a white person the minimum–but Banks seems to be positing a problem with jurisprudence itself that I don’t comprehend. I think, perhaps, Banks touches on the key to this when he mentions “systematic problems resulting from slavery and racism (as) the source of the persistence of African Americans’ problems in the United States” (100). This is a historical problem, like that of women. I would have liked more elaboration on this, and I hope that perhaps others address it in their analysis of this book.

The book discussed in this post is:

Banks, Adam J. Race, Rhetoric, and Technology. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 2006. Print.

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