FM reviews
First Monday


Straubhaar Joseph Straubhaar, Jeremiah Spence, Zeynep Tufekci, and Roberta G. Lentz (editors).
Inequity in the technopolis: Race, class, gender, and the digital divide in Austin.
Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012.
paper, 296 pp., ISBN 978–0–292–72871–4, US$55.00.
University of Texas Press:



Inequity in the technopolis: Race, class, gender, and the digital divide in Austin comprises the results of a ten–year (1999–2009) study of the digital divide in Austin, Texas. Historical information about Austin’s policies of segregation in the 1920s and economic development efforts starting in the 1950s provides context for the study. The book examines the results when government, non–profit, business, and university groups worked separately and in concert to alleviate digital inequity in a city that was being crafted into a technopolis, “a new type of society, focused economically, socially, and politically on an information or creative economy, fueled in part by industries specifically focused on computers, the Internet, and digital telecommunications” (p. 11). Ultimately, the book challenges conventional wisdom about digital inequality and efforts to decrease the access gap between digital “haves” and digital “have–nots.”

The ten chapters reflect the involvement of the book’s four editors and seventeen other named contributors — and countless university student–researchers — in the longitudinal study and the historical and policy research that support it. Chapter 1 outlines the structure of the book and offers the theoretical perspectives that frame the study: an examination of cultural geography, structuration, and cultural capital as defined by de Certeau, Giddens, and Bourdieu.

Chapter 2 chronicles the history of racial structuration in Austin that began in the 1920s and, in spite of the desegregation efforts that began in the 1970s, persists to this day. The study conducted in 1999–2000 and repeated in 2009 focused on high-minority areas of east Austin. The researchers invited African American and Hispanic (mostly Mexican American) participants who minimally benefitted from the efforts of city planners to develop Austin into a technopolis that would affect social equity for all its citizens.

Chapter 3 reveals the public–private partnerships that began in 1957 to develop Austin as a high–technology manufacturing technopolis. The success of those early efforts and subsequent efforts to lure semiconductor and computer industry research to Austin in the 1980s led to an influx of educated technocrats and to an increase in the cost of living that by the 1990s left many Austin natives under–educated for an economy that had made the transition from manufacturing to information.

Chapters 4 and 5 explore the issue of the digital divide as a consequence of the strategy to develop Austin into a technopolis and of larger economic forces acting in Austin and elsewhere. The book looks at local and national policy efforts introduced in the 1990s — and cut in subsequent years — and the local programs they funded to offer technology training and promote technology opportunities among underserved residents, with mixed results.

Chapters 6–8 analyze local initiatives in Austin that used public funding from various levels to provide universal digital access and computer education. This section of the book details the early work of non–profits and the City of Austin to provide equipment access in public libraries and community centers in socioeconomically depressed areas of the city and the later shift to provide widespread free public wireless access to broadband.

Chapter 9 details the bookend studies that examined the effects of Austin’s rise as a technopolis on African American and Hispanic families in economically disadvantaged east Austin. The studies tracked social mobility and the transference of social, cultural, and educational capital across generations, revealing racial and gender differences in “techno–dispositions” that affect the likelihood of specific groups from joining the ranks of the digitally advantaged. The chapter ends with some insights into the current digital youth culture among minorities and indicates that the publication of this book does not end the ongoing study.

In the final chapter the book’s primary editor and architect of the studies, Joseph Straubhaur, sums up the preceding chapters and reinforces the overall findings, that with every new technology come “layers of potential stratification” that generate responses first among government programs before market effects take over.

Even though Austin is presented as “a best–case scenario for narrowing the digital divide” (p. 227), the book presents Austin as a model of our inability to create an ideal technopolis, where every citizen benefits equally in the riches of the information society. By examining the digital divide in terms of techno–field, techno–capital, and techno–dispositions per Bourdieu, the researchers challenge the predominate theories about the eventual diffusion of technology access — in terms of equipment and education — to every person, the “trickling down” from the technocracy to the techno–needy.

The various contributors to the book represent schools of media and communication/radio–television–film, journalism, information and library science, fine arts, and cultural studies. The individual chapters can be read as independent reports of various aspects of the digital divide, but the editors do a good job of cross referencing chapters in the text. Anyone who picked the book up to read only the chapter on the history of Austin’s racial structuration, for example, would be prompted to explore related issues in other chapters. As a complete work the book benefits from Straubhaur’s charge and ability to construct a cohesive story from the efforts of scores of people across a decade. I recommend the book for anyone interested in (or teaching) telecommunications and related public policy, sociology, social science research, communication and culture, the rise of the network/information society, or information science. — Don Hamerly, Assistant Professor, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Dominican University, River Forest, Ill. End of article

Copyright © 2012, First Monday.

Review of Inequity in the technopolis: Race, class, gender, and the digital divide in Austin
by Don Hamerly.
First Monday, Volume 17, Number 11 - 5 November 2012

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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