The subject of digital redlining has been a concern of mine since I first learned about the issue during the course of my studies into the digital humanities I did for my first M.A. To me, digital redlining is one of the most troubling aspects of the Internet’s algorithmic logic and it is an issue that requires a multilateral response. Especially when it comes to educational technology (edtech) and the provision of informational resources, digital redlining can be the impediment that obstructs not just the acquisition of knowledge but also deeply affects the quality of life one is able to achieve. Whether physical or digital, restricting one’s access to certain kinds of information has lasting ramifications.
For those unaware of what “redlining” is just in and of itself, it is essentially the act of systematically denying or dramatically reducing a group of people’s access to particular resources. Historically, redlining has disproportionately affected marginalized groups, especially African Americans. The practice of redlining gets its name from when city maps used to have red lines drawn on them to delineate “black” neighborhoods from the surrounding areas. These lines dictated where businesses chose to establish themselves and dictated property values. Often, people living in redlined zones did not even know that they were living in one. Their entire worldview could be skewed and they could be completely unaware.
Unfortunately, this practice is not just some vestige of the past. Rather, it is alive and well. We see something almost identical happening today in digital spaces.
According to Chris Gilliard, “Digital redlining is not a renaming of the digital divide. It is a different thing, a set of education policies, investment decisions, and IT practices that actively create and maintain class boundaries through strictures that discriminate against specific groups. The digital divide is a noun; it is the consequence of many forces. In contrast, digital redlining is a verb, the “doing” of difference, a “doing” whose consequences reinforce existing class structures.” Essentially, as redlining was an active manifestation of segregation and racism, digital redlining is the act of picking and choosing who gets access to what knowledge based upon a variety of arbitrary factors like race, class, and even college choice. It is how systems and institutions exert control over users via control of the info-flow in digital spaces. Gilliard’s research focuses specifically on how digital redlining affects students in community colleges, which are institutions who’s focus on job training often determines what information their digital systems will allow users access to. Gilliard’s analysis of the Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs) of many community colleges reveals that most set boundaries that severely limit the amount of information students can access through the college’s systems as compared to the information students at “higher level” universities can access. This is a problem because the amount of information one is able to access determines the amount of knowledge they can develop. As Gilliard expresses quite succinctly, “If the school restricts information access, knowledge doesn’t simply become invisible; it does not exist.” When institutions like schools restrict access to information, they are deciding not just a student’s perspective on the world but their entire concept of their world as a whole. In this sense, saying that digital redlining is a major issue is a severe understatement.
Differential access to information in education reinforces the very class and racial divides that education is so often touted as diminishing. In light of digital redlining, those claims seem so disingenuous. Access to information is supposed to help level the playing field but what do educators and we, as information professionals, do when the very systems we comprise are the ones perpetuating the antithesis of everything we stand for? Of course, the answer appears to be that we design more conscientious systems and while it seems like we certainly have been trying to do that, how do we convince a monolithic entity like “the entire education system” that equitable access to information should not be debated? Gilliard addresses these very concerns when he asserts that, “Digital redlining takes place when policymakers and designers make conscious choices about what kinds of tech and education are ‘good enough’ for certain populations but also happens through the failure to interrogate policy and design.” Digital redlining occurs across disciplines and will continue to happen unless there is a focused, conscious, and continued response to addressing it at all levels. What that response should look like though, I do not know. Digital redlining does not exist within a vacuum and is the 21st century product of historical and systemic oppression that we are still trying to address outside of digitization.
For me, it is interesting to see these intersections between information, education, and policy play out in digital spaces that were intended to, again, close these kinds of divides. Digital redlining seems adjacent to “echo chambers” in that it basically dictates all the knowledge one can attain. The important different between the two, though, is that digital redlining is not intentional on the part of the user. Rather, the user’s experience of information (and, by extension, their experience of the world they build from that information) is being completely decided by an algorithm put in place by an institution that has some incentive, whether it be financial or cultural, etc., to restrict user access. It sounds dystopian and yet it is our current reality in 2019. To put it mildly, it certainly throws a wrench into providing equitable access to information but, if I am learning anything, information professionals are no strangers to encountering challenges in best practice. Hopefully, sometime soon, we can develop better ways, communally and beyond, to alleviate and tackle this issue.
Gilliard, C. (2019, May 17). Digital Redlining, Access, and Privacy. Retrieved from https://www.commonsense.org/education/articles/digital-redlining-access-and-privacy
If you are interested in learning more about Gilliard’s research, I also highly recommend checking out Gilliard’s twitter @hypervisible and specifically his #digitalredlining thread. Ir’s a great open community.