Big Brother and the Digital Divide

Cody Zimmer

The digital age has completely revolutionized our lives both positively and negatively. Information is easily accessible, people are reading and writing on a much larger scale, and it is easier than ever to stay connected with friends and family no matter their geographical location. However, with the spread of the digital movement comes increased xenophobia, discrimination, and hate. The Euro-centric, heteronormative systems of oppression which have been woven into the fabric of American society are becoming digitalized.  The internet began as predominantly a space for upper-class white men and now, they hold sway over the information that gets released and the people who get “red-flagged” through the development of algorithms which closely monitor those who are viewed as socially threatening due to their race, sexuality, or income status. Virginia Eubanks warns us of the hidden algorithms which monitor every decision we make and illustrates how this contributes to the spread of legal and financial inequality. These algorithms are not only an infringement of our civil rights, but are inherently immoral. Everything we buy, view, like, or post is recorded and used as information to sort out potential threats to American society. There is no doubt in my mind that prestigious elites utilize these algorithms in order to maintain the economic immobility of capitalism and to secure their place at the top of the financial food chain. Eubanks elaborates this idea as she states, “digital tracking and automated decision-making hide poverty from the professional middle-class public and give the nation the ethical distance it needs to make inhuman choices. (15)”

In other words, people are getting taken advantage of by the immoral programs designed to restrain social mobility. We have abandoned any ethical notion of eliminating poverty and racism and have actually taken steps in the other direction in order to ensure that it never is eliminated and invisible. If these systems of inequality are not acknowledged or released to the general public, then it allows for them to continue to function. Yet, the more light that is shone on this topic will force people to deal with it, and maybe some social change could occur.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In what ways do you feel that you are being “spied on” and through what social media/websites?
  2. What are some alternatives insurance agencies could use in order to secure against fraud without discriminating against people of low-income?
  3. Do you think people on Welfare should have their purchases monitored? Why or Why Not?

11 Replies to “Big Brother and the Digital Divide”

  1. Cody,
    I think you wrote a really well written educated post. I was really intrigued with Eubanks writing and where she was going with her story. I then found myself having kind of a hard time understanding all the topics she was going through but your post helped. I like your first question, in what ways are we being “spied on.” This is such a common joke people make when something they were just talking about comes up as an advertisement. At this point, that is expected but some other things get super creepy. Sometimes my mom will show me a certain item on her ipad and ask me if I like it then next thing I know it will be an ad on my phone. Recently my friend sent me a snapchat of her new shoes and I thought in my head I really want to order those then it came up as an ad a few minutes later. Things can get super creepy and scary and it’s a mystery to me. Other than that a quote I found on page 8 that stood out to me was “People of color, migrants, unpopular religious groups, sexual minorities, the poor, and other oppressed and exploited populations bear a much higher burden of monitoring and tracking than advantaged groups.” This made me realize there’s a bit of racism in almost everything.

  2. Hi Cody,
    Your response to this reading was really well put. I would agree that there is definitely an inherent racism that lives with the algorithms that we use in our daily lives. I also agree that it is especially problematic that mainly white heterosexual men are creating these algorithms as it gives no chance for the institution of racism to be dismantled in this online space.
    The way we are living now, we are definitely being spied on, as you put it. It even at one point became a joke on twitter about people having relationships with “their FBI agent” who had been bugging their phone. However, all jokes aside it does seem apparent that our phones are listening to us and the things we look up online are often tracked. I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve been looking at a product to purchase online and have left it in my cart, and when I go to another web page there is an ad for that specific product on the site. That is no coincidence. Something as simple as tracking a purchase is no big deal, but it is just how it starts. More in depth tracking could cause serious issues, and with the way things are going now, it can’t be long until such things are used to enforce racism, as it has so often done in the past.
    I was aware of the constraints people on welfare face because I became in contact with it quite often while I worked at a grocery store. It was a very limiting service, but I assumed it was just to ensure there was enough money in the system. However, I was quite shocked to find out that people on welfare were actually being tracked to find out what they spend, where they spend it, and why they spend it. Such an invasion of privacy is not right, and I would agree with Eubanks that it is just a way to further separate the poor from the rich and to lock in the ways in which poor people are ostracized and treated.
    The way the internet is being used to keep people where they currently are and to enforce the roles our society puts upon us is very dangerous and must be stopped. The internet is a very good thing that provides lots of opportunities for knowledge and engagement, but it is also a powerful resource, one we must be careful with in terms of how we use it.

  3. Cody,
    What an insightful post. This reading was very upsetting to me being someone who has never been in such a place. However, I really enjoyed her honest and open perspective. When you began to mention how our devices listen in I was captivated. I mentioned the other day in class how I was talking about my class led day to my roomates and adds began to pop up about related topics. I think it is scary, but it does not bother me. I think it is intrusive however and would like to know more about what they do with that information.

  4. Hi Cody,
    I like your title and your reference to Big Brother, from George Owell’s book 1984, I remember reading this book my sophomore year of highschool and it’s so weird because now I feel like we are constantly being monitored and certain parts of our lives are being tuned in on. This generation takes pride in how advanced technology is but I wonder if maybe it’s a little too advanced for our own good. There are systems tracking people’s behaviors and people who use assistance from the government to help their families such as EBT. Eubanks speaks about these systems and in the reading she stated that “as these systems developed in sophistication and reach, I started to hear them being described as forces of control, manipulation, and punishment” (Eubanks 9,10). These programs are placing people of color and people who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds in vulnerable positions where they are denied of health care and resources. Until reading this I was not aware that these systems do this, it’s unfair how society operates and how people who are already privileged and at advantage socially and economically are constantly getting the upper hand.

    On the social media websites I currently use I don’t feel like I’m outright being spied on, I feel like a lot of the content I post myself and what I repost or comment on is pretty much all safe and appropriate content. I do believe that if I was posting harmful posts or content that could be deemed to be unsafe for myself or others I would be closely watched but I don’t have to worry about that. I do believe people on welfare should have their items monitored but not in the sense where it’s used to further discriminate and hold racial stereotypes over their head. They should be monitored just to make sure they are making the correct purchases.

  5. Hi Cody, I agree with what you stated in your blogpost. The digital age is ever changing. Most of the devices we own collect all of our personal information and monitor our every move. Along with this spread of digital movement comes paranoia, discrimination, and frustration. The author points out that poor and working class individuals are targeted by new tools of digital poverty management. As a result, they face life threatening consequences. “They are embedded in social media interactions, flow through applications for government services, envelop every product we try or buy. They are so deeply woven into the fabric of social life that, most of the time, we don’t even notice we are being watched and analyzed.” (5). These technologies have an impact on me and everyone I know with smartphones and similar devices. One way I feel as though I am being “spied on” is when I am scrolling through my Instagram feed and I recieve an advertisement from a website I was shopping at from the previous day. Another example includes when I am having a conversation with a friend and my phone is with me and I get an advertisement about what my friend and I were discussing.

  6. Hey Cody-

    Enjoyed your thought-provoking Blog post this week. To answer your question about feeling “spied on”, my friends and I pretend we have our spy through the front screen camera- acknowledging them- saying hi to our cameras in hope the spies will make us famous one day. So yes, I believe that this matter should be brought to everyone’s attention who uses the internet because of the power that it holds. Though technology and the internet have opened avenues of advancement, technology has spread its newfound power over to predominantly: White men from the upper or working class. The digital age gave humanity a sense of more freedom and a glimpse into what we are capable of regarding the world of technology- such as releasing a new iPhone almost every year that includes updates better than every model previous. With these devices in our minds and physically, constantly used in our hands, it is difficult to deny the systems of oppression underlying on the internet. Virginia Eubanks sheds light on her audience about the dangers of algorithms. Every time I’m on amazon, google, or youtube, it doesn’t cross my mind to think that hidden algorithms and predictive risk models are the reason why people get sorted into categories such as easily targetable for fraud or which neighborhoods get policed the most. What does cross my mind is how I’m being monitored when I see that my websites are keeping track of what I view, and that information is later carried onto different websites or even advertisements that can come onto any page. Yes, algorithms do this to everyone, yet “People of color, migrants, stigmatized religious groups, sexual minorities, the poor, and other oppressed and exploited populations bear a much heavier burden of monitoring, tracking, and social sorting than advantaged groups” (Eubanks 4). Just as predicted, you can take people and place them behind screens, yet you cant take out the oppression that occurs between people. These algorithms mirror the systemic forms of oppression in person, but instead, the oppression is targeted with the use of online data. These immoral, violating algorithms maintain order to legal and financial inequality, our capitalistic society, and marginalized groups that already feel the impact of life’s inequalities in person, now being pushed more than ever through the web.

  7. I like your post a lot I feel like it highlights all the main parts of the readings. You also wrote it in a way that is easy for anyone to understand. I could have my mom read your blog post and she would one hundred percent understand our topic of discussion for class. With important things like this, it’s good to know that we can say it in a way to make it so that everyone can understand. It’s the important issues in life that people don’t realize are affecting them.
    I think that we are all aware of being “spied” on, the amount of times I’ve heard the FBI agent watching me through my phone joke is unreal. It’s not that far off from the truth though. It’s no coincidence that we get adds on our social media after texting about something or looking it up on the internet. Invasion of privacy? I think so. The other day I clicked on a link that brought me to a wine company. Now all of my feed is full of different wine companies trying to get my attention. These companies and platforms do this so that they can get more business, but at what cost?

  8. Hi Cody, I really enjoyed reading your blog post. I think with the technology that we have today it is easy to feel like we are being spied on. I think there is no question to that we are actually being spied on. I feel like one of the ways we are being spied on is when your online shopping especially on amazon, and then moments later you get ads on facebook for that certain thing you were just looking at. I feel like I’ve become accustomed to this kind of situation. I don’t even think twice about it anymore, but I think we should. I think this type of invasion of privacy is a tactic companies use to get people to make more purchases. It definitely makes me think that we need to think twice about making purchases, protecting our purchases, and where we make them.

  9. Hi Cody,
    Your post was incredibly eye-opening and really made me think about just what goes on within the internet. I completely agree with you, I think that what we do online is always monitored, and that many times based on what we search, our suggestions for things to like / favorite / retweet / search are messed with. For example, I was looking on American Eagle for clothes to purchase. I put a few things into my online shopping cart, but did not purchase. When I went onto Facebook later that night, the suggested clothes that came up for American Eagle were the exact same ones that were sitting in my cart. If that doesn’t freak you out, I don’t know what will!
    I also agree with the points you made about while the internet is supposed to be a free and open space, it actually serves as a dividing factor for many different groups of people. The internet collects our data and tailors our search activity to keep this divide intact; one example could be taken from the 2016 Presidential election. Republicans who supported Trump and his racist and outdated ideas would post or share things on Facebook that supported him. Then, Facebook algorithms would find other posts, pictures, or articles that supported these ideas, and would filter those into their Facebook feeds, eliminating the opportunity for any other ideas or opinions to go through. Another example of people being “watched” is looking at many college students cameras on their computers, often times you’ll see a piece of paper or tape covering the camera, for fear of being watched / monitored. The internet can be a scary place.

  10. Hey Cody, I liked when you said how” These algorithms are not only an infringement of our civil rights, but are inherently immoral.” I couldn’t agree more I feel like there are civil rights laws being broken all around and we don’t even know it is happening to us. I heard that the FBI would use your phone to omit wave frequencies to the television that you were watching so they can cater better commercials to your liking. I feel like the government does things like this under our noses and gets away with it because nobody thinks anything is going on,and nobody cares to look into it. A few years ago, I had a piece of tape over my computer microphone and camera because that was the big thing and everyone, I knew would be talking about how the government is secretly watching us. Or how the illuminati is real, These are just things that citizens can only hope is not going on because we cant do anything to stop the government from spying on us because they will just find a different way. I think the government do this because they want to micromanage everyone’s lives and the government think they know whats best for you, but they are always looking to improve the government more. I don’t think I’ve been red flagged before, but they aren’t required to tell you that they red flagged you so my family could have been red flagged unknowingly. Eubanks said, “Being cut off from health insurance at a time when you feel most vulnerable,” (4) This is commonly the time the government would red flag you. They are happy to take your money but once you get hurt and need money back, they take it away. I think if one thing should be changed it should be how the normal lower-class person responds to this. They can’t do too much because they don’t have money for a lawyer or anything so they cant fight back or you don’t have the legal team to help you find out that you have been red flagged. And sometimes you may be given a lawyer for free, but they might not know all the algorithms and won’t be able to prevent the government from taking advantage of you. I think that instead of the government spending resources to spy on its own people they could give them more benefits to help balance the work scale.

  11. Hey Cody!
    I think that you did a great job putting this problem into perspective of how the internet monitors our every click, which is extremely scary to think about. I definitely agree with the fact that there is an underlying idea of racism that is hidden within the algorithms we utilize on an everyday basis. Also, when you mentioned how the “prestigious elites” probably use these algorithms in order to “secure their place at the top of the financial food chain,” it opened my eyes and make me realize how correct your assumption really is. These people who control these algorithms are usually wealthy and money hungry, and will do anything to sustain their level in power.

    Being that the internet started out as a space for wealthy white men, subjects revolving around gender, race, and status do indeed get “red-flagged” because these subjects are seen as a threat to these men. These upper class men seem to still be controlling the things that we see on the internet and are hiding problems that are revolved around gender, race and economic status. This makes me very upset because these powerful people who control what we see on the internet are preventing a chance for change for these people. They are trying their hardest to conceal the real-life problems that these groups suffer with on a daily basis, but how will the rest of the world be aware of that if this information is being pushed aside?

    Although this is a big quote to use, I truly believe that Eubanks perfectly explains the problem with our society and what aspects we need to take action on and change to better out futures.
    “We created a society that has no use for the disabled or the elderly, and therefore are cast aside when we are hurt or grow old. We measure human worth by the ability to earn a wage, then suffer in a world that undervalues care, community, and mutual aid. We base our economy on exploiting the labor of racial and ethnic minorities and watch lasting inequalities snuff out human potential. We see the world as inevitably riven by bloody competition and are left unable to recognize the many ways in which we cooperate and lift one another up.”

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