Unstable Connections

Access to technology puts the world at my fingertips. Everyone should have the same opportunity.

“Caroline, can you play the chromatic exercise for us? Caroline … Are you there, Caroline?”

I blinked my bleary, half-shut eyes open. My laptop was propped against a pillow, my band director was a collection of pixels on my screen, my flute was untouched in the living room, and I was snuggled under my bedsheets. I was supposedly “attending” my first-period band class, but I had no intention of blowing on a cold tube of sound-producing metal for at least the first twenty minutes of this torturously early morning. Alas, the safety of the video-off Zoom screen had failed me today.

I sprinted downstairs to retrieve my flute and music, then hurried back upstairs to my laptop. The last time I’d engaged in such strenuous exercise was months ago, before the pandemic. Attempting to breathe evenly, I unmuted myself to reply, “Yep, I can play that.” And with a few trembling notes, I saved myself from the ignominy of online-but-MIA status.

Episodes like these were, unfortunately, the highlights of my online public high school experience. Little else remains memorable when each day consists of watching teachers talk at joyless screens of silent black boxes.

When school first shut down, our abruptly digitized lives still held a degree of amusing, absurdist novelty. I recall asking, “Zoom? What’s that?” in March 2020 when my brother first mentioned the video conferencing platform that would soon become central to our lives. I found humor in the fateful appearance of the “Your connection is unstable” message, voices distorted by microphones into unintelligible robotic monstrosities, and students ejecting themselves from class meetings “due to internet issues” when asked a question they couldn’t answer.

It was funny until it lasted forever. The constant promise of normalcy slipped to next month, next quarter, next year. Gradually, I became aware of the inequities that undermined this neverending online school for so many of my peers, who doubled as babysitters for little siblings or who could barely connect to class due to faulty Wi-Fi.

Online school left the feeble threads of our education on the brink of unraveling, barely held together by four five-hour school days a week. If I—a straight-A student whose parents hold graduate degrees and provide steady internet, multiple devices, and homework help—struggled through online school, it was immeasurably more difficult for students with fewer resources. In the 2020–21 school year, a loss of digital connection meant a loss of human connection. It meant shattering a young person’s connection with their fundamental right to education.

But for me, the privilege of having access to technology allowed me to connect to the world, to my passions, and to my identity more than ever before. In the confines of my small, predominantly White town, being an idiosyncratically ambitious Asian girl made it difficult to click with friends who shared my interests and struggles. I’d never “found my people” until summer 2020, when I participated in an online international-exchange writing program with teens from twenty countries. For the first time, I realized there were other high schoolers out there who loved discussing books, pretty words, and dreams of cultivating a more beautiful world through storytelling. We became a family through 1:00 a.m. phone calls and peer reviews, all without ever meeting in “real life.”

Technology was the thread that strung together the perfectly interlocking beads of our personalities. Even after the program ended, weekly Zoom meetings and Slack chats allowed us to continue growing our community. We went on to start Aster Lit, a digital literary magazine sharing the voices of young authors across the globe, particularly those of writers from historically marginalized identities. To me, Aster Lit epitomized the imperfect but invigorating democracy of the internet: it’s where a group of multinational high school writers, the majority of whom are girls of color, have the power to bring together thousands of like-minded strangers for free.

The onset of digitized life also afforded me the time and resources to start a cultural awareness organization called The World in Us. Thanks to the internet’s democratized information landscape, I could easily access articles and connect with peer mentors on LinkedIn, and I was able to build the team, network, and foundation of knowledge necessary to start a nonprofit. Moreover, technology allowed us to expand our vision beyond the local level to run free, virtual cultural education programs for students across eleven countries. Through one-on-one conversations with international peers, I learned about the educational systems, personal values, and daily lives of young people just like me who happen to live on the other side of the globe. The World in Us was able to facilitate such conversations for dozens more young people across the world; for us, meeting a peer from a country we might otherwise never have visited or even heard about is just a call away.

As my experiences with Aster Lit and The World in Us show, the restriction of my life to the digital realm actually expanded my horizons. But I’m immensely privileged in being able to say that. My parents built a foundation of financial stability for me so I could focus on my studies. They instilled in me a relentless dedication to education, rooted in their own experiences immigrating to the US from China for college. I could work because I wanted to, not because I needed to, and could take on time-consuming volunteer roles that I truly enjoyed. If I had to pay for the immense amounts of bandwidth I was using, if I didn’t have a quiet study space to attend classes in, if I didn’t have multiple personal devices and high-speed internet, my perspective of digitized life would likely be far bleaker.

For me, being able to mull over the meaning of literature, global citizenship, and cultural equity was enabled by my possession of technological tools. The connections made possible by those tools gave me a heightened awareness of my privileges. That awareness led me to research socioeconomic inclusivity in software design as an intern with Margaret Burnett, a professor of computer science at Oregon State University.

Like so many of my recent experiences, my work as a research assistant began virtually. I mainly reviewed literature on how populations with low socioeconomic status (SES) view and utilize technology. Using the lens of intersectionality, we evaluated how things like cultural and language literacy, access to technology, attitudes toward authority, self-efficacy, and security affect the ways in which low-SES people interact with technology. Because technology is typically designed and tested by high-SES individuals—most commonly high-income White men—technology is often implicitly geared toward the needs and expectations of mid- to high-SES populations. As a result, low-SES populations often have more negative experiences with technology than high-SES individuals do.

For example, although individuals of all SES levels have privacy concerns around technology, undocumented immigrants in particular face the additional risk of deportation and surveillance when sharing infor-mation online. Meanwhile, low-SES students often have different coping styles when faced with technological issues; low-SES students tend to try to solve problems independently, while high-SES students tend to ask authority figures like teachers for help. In one study, low-SES students were less likely than high-SES students to view teachers as willing to negotiate extensions for assignments turned in late due to technology disruptions. These different means of communicating with authority and addressing technological issues can perpetuate educational inequity trends that disadvantage low-SES students. Cultural and language literacy also play a role, as technological platforms or devices with complex language structures or cul-
tural references can be more difficult for low-literacy individuals to grasp.

Despite these significant inequities, both my research and my positive experiences with technology lead me to believe that technology has immense potential to democratically promote human flourishing. The question moving forward is how we can design equitable technology that’s accessible and effective for all socioeconomic groups, especially those communities that would most benefit from access to technology.

Long-term training and systems change are needed to bring greater diversity into the software designer’s room. However, this alone won’t solve the issue of ubiquitous biases embedded in existing technology. The ultimate goal of our research is to create a tool software developers can use to identify and alleviate low-SES biases in their products, which would occur alongside empirical product testing and interviews with low-SES users. Combined with other equity-centered innovations at research, civil, corporate, and governmental institutions, these efforts are paving a path to a more equitable technological future.

We have reached a turning point in the public consciousness where it is clear that equal access to technology serves as the foundation for equal opportunity in society. The global pandemic has laid bare how economic inequality, the digital divide, climate change, and racial injustice stratify us. Anyone who lived through 2020 can attest that this extreme inequity is not sustainable. And though technology undoubtedly contributes to these issues, it can also provide solutions. Climate science, COVID-19 data, and global tracking of racial and anti-LGBTQ hate crimes have all been facilitated and disseminated through computers. From school districts providing all students with free Chromebooks, to Massive Open Online Courses educating learners of all ages, to virtual communication platforms connecting young activists around the world, the pandemic has shown how technology can be used to drive equity and social good.

Technology’s ever-increasing centrality in our lives is an unavoidable fact—but not necessarily a bad one. We can cultivate a future in which knowledge, friendship, and social capital have no geographic limits. Removing biases embedded in technology and barriers to technological access, particularly for low-SES populations, are essential steps toward this more just future.

I advocate for technology as a member of Generation Z, the most diverse generational cohort in American history. We have never lived without the internet, and large parts of our identities are built on networking technology and the relationships it facilitates. We are coming of age during a global pandemic, racial justice reckonings, and raging wildfires that justify the existential fear we feel about the climate crisis. We are using the internet to advocate for ourselves and our future in places where we typically aren’t heard. We are researching, organizing, and learning about the stories and skills we aren’t taught in school. We are meeting our best friends online.

Ultimately, the rise of the digital realm isn’t inherently good or bad—it is merely part of the natural progression of society and technology. However, the inequities it has inherited and exacerbated are up to us to fix. It’s up to us—not just Gen Z, but all the generations preceding ours and yet to come—to decide whether we will use, design, and share technology equitably to promote the equal opportunity our world needs.

Comments

No comments yet.

Add a Comment

Related Stories

Also in this Issue

From the Director: West on Division

Why It Matters

Editor's Note: Beyond

Shab-e-Yalda

Hotter, Drier, and Less Predictable

Not a Circle, Not a Line

Second Growth

Unstable Connections

Beyond Pigmentocracy

How to Build a Kite

Posts

People, Places, Things

Discussion Questions & Further Reading: Beyond