Monday, June 14, 2021

Q&A with Jessa Lingel




Jessa Lingel is the author of the new book The Gentrification of the Internet: How To Reclaim Our Digital Freedom. Her other books include An Internet for the People. She is associate professor at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.


Q: What inspired you to write The Gentrification of the Internet, and how would you define "gentrification" in relation to the internet?


A: Anti-gentrification activists in Philadelphia inspired me to write this book.


I've watched my neighborhood in South Philadelphia gentrify very quickly over the past five or six years, and in thinking about my own role in that process, I've learned about how loaded the term gentrification is, and how hard people are fighting to win back control over where they live. 


I've been studying digital culture for a decade, and there were so many similarities in the power struggles over-commercialization and discrimination in neighborhoods and online. 


Whether online or off, we can use gentrification as a framework for thinking about displacement, commercialization and isolation. People being forced out of neighborhoods and platforms, increased privatization, and filter bubbles that push us towards people with similar perspectives and backgrounds.


People think of urban gentrification as the decisions of a few homeowners on where they want to live, but really it's about housing policy and tax breaks. Online, there's a similar need to think about policies and regulations that could reshape how we interact with the tools and platforms we use every day. 

Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about internet use?


A: The tech industry has a lot of pull - it's not just a massive source of wealth, it has a huge influence on our everyday lives because of how embedded digital technologies are in how we work, learn, shop and communicate. 


Because the tech industry is so powerful, they can make it seem like the web we have is inevitable - that the internet was always going to turn into the collection of platforms and practices that we have now. 


When people feel that the technology they use is unchangeable, there's no point on pushing back when it comes to things like privacy or harassment policies. 


But the internet could have developed very differently, which means that it can be different in the future. To get there, we need government regulation, and we also need users to remember that Big Tech needs us more than we need them.


Q: The book's subtitle is "How To Reclaim Our Digital Freedom." What are some of the methods you would favor?


A: There are a few steps that people can take to push back on Big Tech. 


On the individual level, we can do more to diversify our online networks. 


Instead of relying on the content that algorithms push to us on social media platforms, we can use our likes and follows to build more diverse networks. Basically, we can be our own algorithms and shake up the content that comes across our feeds, exposing ourselves to new perspectives and ideas. 


We can also demand regulation from lawmakers. We're seeing signs that the federal government is interested in breaking up Big Tech through anti-trust legislation, and we also have an FCC that's more likely to favor net neutrality rulings. 


Pushing our senators and congresspeople, at both the state and federal level, to hold Big Tech accountable is crucial for winning back more control over our online lives.


Q: What do you hope people take away from the book?


A: I wrote this book for ordinary internet users who already get that the internet has a lot of problems, but want to know how it got this way and how it could be different. 


I hope people who read the book will feel like they have a vocabulary for describing what they see and feel in their online lives, and that they have a toolkit for making changes in how they think about and use digital technology. 


Another takeaway is understanding controversies around gentrification, which is important for social justice work whether we're talking about our cities or our online platforms.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I've been working with my friend Kyle Cassidy on a project about the history of the payphone. Payphones have a fascinating history, and a really important story to tell about human communication and technological infrastructure.


I'm also doing a project on Covid-19 contact tracing, focused on how people of color experience public health data requests. I'm collaborating with activists from the Creative Resilience Collective and Free Radicals, which has been a really meaningful partnership that's helped me to focus on community engagement and policy implications. 


Hopefully, we'll be able to offer some guidelines for contact tracing guidelines and public health information campaigns in the future.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Yes!  I would love to plug some other books that I think of as essential reading: Jillian York's new book, Silicon Values, does a great job spelling out the politics of Big Tech, and draws on examples from across the world, and not just the U.S. 


Books by Safiya Noble and Meredith Broussard have become required reading in a very short period of time. I will also plug Joan Donovan's work on content moderation, which has a lot of very actionable advice for Big Tech.   


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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