To what extent has a lack of diversity influenced the development of the internet?
How does this lack of diversity harm societies and individuals?
The internet is a relatively new invention, one that has advanced connectivity between different communities that allows for the fostering of new relations and sharing of information between each other. Nonetheless, the internet is a reflection of social and political structures that exist, which are continuously, inherently and evidentially discriminatory towards marginalised groups.
Diversity can be defined as the active inclusion of differing communities from a heterogeneous assortment of socially constructed backgrounds such as gender, race, sexual orientation, and more, which often intersects within individuals. Castells (2002) defines culture as a repetitive “set of values and beliefs informing behaviour” which results in, “customs that are enforced by institutions, as well as by informal organizations.” The lack of diversity prevalent on the internet creates a culture that continues to harm communities and individuals of diverse and intersecting backgrounds.
The exclusion of diverse groupings, especially in the initial development of the internet, perpetually enables this behaviour online, as the legacy and bias of homogenous white cisgender masculinity lingers within the cyberspace.
Despite the internet’s creation being associated with the late ’80s and early ’90s, its foundations can be traced back to the first underwater telegraph line placed in 1851 (Thorat, 2019). The placing of underwater optic fibre cables was successful through colonial practices of military control, resource and labour exploitation, particularly by the British Empire.
Thorat (2019) underlines that the gutta percha tree, native to the Malay peninsula, was destroyed for the use of British scientists as the tree sap was known to be a useful resistor to water due to its rubber-like quality. This knowledge was shared by local indigenous communities which unfortunately lead to being credited to a white colonial officer for their supposed ‘discovery’ that advanced the telegraph system and consequently the development of the internet.
As of 2022, 530 submarine cables are tracked across the globe which aids connectivity across different regions and servers (TeleGeography, 2022). The majority of these lines tend to run through the global south which were known colonial territories; oppressors would often use these lines to communicate with each other from different colonies. Continuing to this day new lines are still placed in these old routes due to familiarity, actively neglecting its history of being “centered around colonial empires” (Starosielski, 2015, 61 in Thornton, 2019).
Developing the Internet
The development of the internet is a phenomenon that is well celebrated and continues to advance further technological and social advancements. The internet was predominantly built by and for white cisgender heterosexual men in the West, accentuated by the exploitation of racially and gender-diverse individuals, which as a result led to an exclusive cyberculture. Many confer that the internet was built by men; however, it is important to note that the development of the internet was a collaborative endeavour by all, including women and racial minorities that have often been excluded from the field due to oppressive legislations and had their work plagiarised by white men (Conley, 2012), such as Ada Lovelace’s contribution towards the analytical engine.
The internet was first used by academic researchers with the launch of ARPANET in late 1969 that connected four U.S. universities; University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Stanford Research Institute (SRI), the University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB) and the University of Utah. Despite women and racial minorities, especially black students, being able to enrol in universities during this time, numbers were not as high as they are today, which as a result resulted in an environment largely dominated by white men which contributed to the internet culture then and consequently today.
Though looking at the material history in the construction of the internet is useful, Abbate (2017, p. 10) advocates for the investigation of the development of the internet in its “content or social space” as a means to understand how “active role of users as content creators as well as the political role of information,” can play a significant part in cyberculture. When the internet was developed and used by mostly white men, their internal biases regarding gender and race resulted in these being imbedded within the social structures of the internet that reverberates today.
Racial & Cultural Diversity
Filters on social media platforms such as Snapchat have been criticised for their ease in digital blackfishing and lightening the skin of darker-skinned people. Platforms that have an element of advertising, such as Facebook have been deplored for their options of targeted racial advertising or exclusive advertising away from certain racial groups (Matamoros-Fernández & Farkas, 2021).
Social media platforms across have as well been condemned for their inequal content moderation, for example removing content that attempts to spotlight the ethnic cleansing of Uyghur Muslims in China or Palestinian genocide despite these same platforms lacking efficiency in removing lucid racial remarks online or aiding the development of racially motivated attacks such as the capitol riot on January 6th in 2021.
English was the most commonly used language online in January 2020; however, this number only represents 25.9% of internet users globally (Statista, 2020), despite there being more non-English speakers worldwide. This as a result excludes major portions of the population unable to access information online due to the lack of cultural diversity available. The functionality of keyboards as well forms a barrier for other languages such as those descended from Sanskrit due to their inefficiency which inevitably leads to the overall exclusion of these cultures (The Internet Health Report, 2020).
Gender and Sexual Diversity
Sexism is rampant within internet cultures and structures. Search engines are a clear form of visualising such, as it is illustrated when one searches for ‘girls’ as “the ways in which girls’ identities are commercialized, sexualized, or made curiosities within the gaze of the search engine,” (Noble, 2018, p. 34). This is especially harmful for women of colour as when you specify race such as, ‘black girls’ or ‘Asian girls’ often the first few results are of pornographic materials (Noble, 2018).
This sexualisation of specific communities is as well evident online with queerness. The internet allows access for queer individuals to learn more about their orientations, communities, connect with each other and find acceptance amongst one another (Harper et al., 2008). However, a study conducted by Gámez-Guadix and Incera (2021) found that, being a queer individual online increases the chances of online sexual victimisation and risks which results in increased prospects of depression and anxiety symptoms. The lack of diversity both offline and online in terms of gender and sexual orientation results in risking the well-being of these communities.
Diversity is necessary
Some argue and celebrate that the internet is in fact depoliticised, devoid of any form of social identity categories, reducing everyone to the same faceless individual. However, scholars argue that “colour blindness and neutrality affirm whiteness in its central and privileged racial position,” (Kanjere, 2019, p. 1) as often these ‘neutral’ identities are subject to the cultural hegemony of whiteness (Nakamura, 2002).
Diversity needs to be emphasised and underlined. Creating a non-heterogenous space that erases identity can result in the presumption of whiteness and masculinity enunciating “homophobic and racist hegemonies through the erasure or domestication of culturally and politically constituted identities” (Butler, 1993, p. 38).
To conclude, achieving a public space that is diverse and reflective of the real world is difficult to attain as nearly half of the world’s population do not have access to the internet. Despite the internet providing technological advancements in connectivity and resource sharing, it contains aspects of embedded bias that continue to harm intersecting groups of marginalised communities and individuals. The internet is a facilitator rather than the root cause of harm as it enables discriminative human behaviour informed by past and present discriminatory social and political constructions.
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