Internet and Privilege

Part of what was going through my mind, writing that Internet nostalgia post, was the notion that my being granted Internet access in August of ‘93 was a privilege. Quite literally. By backing up my request for an account on the Mistral.ERE.UMontreal.CA machine, Kevin Tuite was granting me access to a whole wide world, mostly undiscovered by other undergraduate students. Knowing how justifiably strict André Earl Paquet (UdeM SysAdmin) was, the fact that I got on ERE at such an early stage is rather significant.

It’s not the only time I was allowed access to restricted areas, “before my time”. Often with teachers. For instance, I’m still moved by a strong musical moment in which I’ve had the privilege to participate as a student in a music daycamp. The camp’s instructors were hanging out at the end of the day and I was waiting for a ride with one of them. I was the only student there and the age difference (I was 13 and they were 19 or 20) should have mattered. The point is, we all lay down on the floor with lights off and we all started… vocal improvisations over the sound of a vending machine. Deep.

Part of my privileged access to teachers might have been related to the fact that my father was a teacher and I perceived his colleagues as normal human beings. In fact, I was only a kid when I witnessed a group of teachers cry. In a tiny-scale version, it’s distantly related to African soldiers fighting alongside colonials and seeing fear in their eyes. I know how far those two situations sound, from one another. But there’s something significant about hierarchy, that it of“bten relies on flimsy masks.

But back to the Internet. I was privileged in my early access. I’m still privileged with better access to the ‘Net than a large part of the population of the planet, though there are hundreds of millions of us with such access. In this sense, I’m on “the better side of the Digital Divide”. I’m also privileged with working knowledge of a number of tools, which I acquired through many ways which are still inaccessible to most people on the planet. Not only was my university education part of this but the fact that I was getting a steady (though relatively low) salary during that Summer of 1993 meant that I could spend that formative time online.

The “classic” (almost textbook) example of privileged access to the Internet is Bill Gates. Though he’s occasionally been portrayed as a “self-made man”. Of course, the concept has a specific meaning in financial circles. But deep privilege is often hidden by the Horatio Alger connotations of that concept. Not to take anything away from Gates’s business acumen and programming chops, but I find it important to point out that, in the 1970s, it would have been extremely unlikely to have a computer mogul emerge out of a rural single-parent low-income family in the US Heartland.

“But”, I hear some sociology students say, “that’s just life! It’s not ‘privilege’! Would you say that Gates was privileged by when he was born?”

Why, yes, I probably would call that “privilege”. That’s a big part of what we mean by privilege, in sociology: arbitrary conditions which imply easier access to key resources. Even such a thing as going to a school which had decent computer labs at a time when most schools didn’t is significant privilege.

“Oh, but, but…”, some of the same students might say, “that means nothing, then. Success is still 90% hard work.”

You’re engineering majors, right?

“What does this have to do with anything?”

Depending on how you think about determinism, that might be accurate. But I’d say it’s misleading. Some people might talk about “luck” instead of privilege, and assign it a 10% influence. But it’s at least an enabling factor in this model and it might be a whole lot more. If “success” doesn’t happen without “luck”, the proportional impact of “luck” is a moot point.

“C’m’on!”, students continue, ”Bill Gates had to work hard! He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth!”

I don’t dispute that. I’d be very surprised if Gates had an actual silver spoon in his mouth at birth and I don’t think it’d have been that useful for him. But I’m saying that privilege is something we do well to put in context.

“Now you’re playing with us!”

Yep. I love to play. But there’s an important idea, here, which may help you understand sociology:

Privilege is often invisible to those who hold it.

Can you do well in a challenging situation without being told what an inspiration you are?

“Huh?”

Check out the “Invisible Knapsack”.

“Meh…”

It’s an assignment!

“Ok.”

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