Quinn Norton leads an interesting life, to say the least. She's written for publications from Wired to the Guardian, taken aim at the tech elite's class bubbles and still found time to get a magnetic implant. Currently, she's among the adjunct faculty at NYU, teaching courses on body and self, among other matters.
Recently, we sat down (virtually) for an interview/conversation that used the digital divide as a starting point. It ended up going into upheaval, political lock-in, labor strife, infrastructure, the Romans, the difficulties of spinning down a superpower and how community remains the most profound prosthetic human beings have ever invented. Also; Thomas Jefferson was apparently the first psychohistorian (you heard it here first).
So, in what I hope is the finest Breaking Time tradition, it ended up militantly eclectic. My own questions are in bold. Enjoy, there's plenty of food for thought here.
What are some of the biggest mis-impressions popularly about the digital divide, or lack thereof?
You have to scope it, because the digital divide is a really different matter in the US than it is internationally. Have you heard the statement that “after dark, Twitter is black”?
Twitter, unlike most of the social networks, actually overrepresents African-Americans compared to percentage of population, and there's a black Twitter-sphere that looks very different from the white Twitter-sphere. After night, you see a lot of social grooming and a lot less of the broadcast branding that many of the white Twitterers do. So at night, after work, you can look at the trending topics and see ones — like things my boyfriend or girlfriend says — that don't seem to relate to the “normal” trending topics. If you go and look, the people tweeting them will often be black; it's a whole different type of tweets.
Yes, to some degree I've seen that happening in my own city. Essentially, different times of the day, different social groups use Twitter. If you can't go on Twitter at work, which tends to happen when you have a desk job, you'll go on at night.
You mentioned that scope differs. How is it different between the U.S. and internationally?
I don't know if you've followed Danah Boyd's research, it's really interesting. She researches youth and social networks. You remember when MySpace was the old Facebook? It was huge. What Danah identified that it was actually white flight to Facebook. You don't have that kind of divide with Twitter, but you do have an emerging phenomenon of racial homophily on the internet.
I don't know what exactly to make of that. I think we're in a situation where there's less of a big digital divide than there used to be and many, many more small digital divides than there used to be. So you have the internet being used by different groups for social grooming in a way it didn't used to be, but social grooming along a lot of race and class lines.
At the same time you do have a really profound destruction of the local going on, so homophilies are replacing local in kind of a mindshare.
This is one reason why local news coverage has a really big problem on its hands, because that's just not as strong of an identity marker anymore, not when you can find a lot of other people that are like you online. It's an opportunity/cost issue; paying attention to the particulars of the place you are in takes away from time to pay attention to the particulars of people who are like you.