On Dark Continents and Digital Divides: Information Inequality and the Reproduction of Racial Otherness in Library and Information Studies/Response to Hudson

By Hudson, David J.; Lowrey, Kathleen | Journal of Information Ethics, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

On Dark Continents and Digital Divides: Information Inequality and the Reproduction of Racial Otherness in Library and Information Studies/Response to Hudson


Hudson, David J., Lowrey, Kathleen, Journal of Information Ethics


Abstract

This article presents a critical race analysis of Library and Information Studies (LIS) writing on global information inequality, that body of literature focused on the connection between global suffering and disparities in information access related to available content, technologies, infrastructure, and skills. I argue that global information inequality represents a key site for the reproduction of racialized discourse in the field. In particular, I contend that the construction of information inequality as a sign of marginalization powerfully (if tacitly) extends colonial mythologies of racial Otherness and Western civilizational superiority. My engagement with critical race and anti-colonial scholarship in support of this claim focuses on two key ideas: (a) the construction of racial difference in colonial discourse, particularly its recourse to narratives of intellectual and technological capacity; and (b) the concept of (international) development as an example of the relatively recent shift to racialized discourse largely stripped of explicit racial coding. After sketching these ideas in broad strokes, I turn to a critical analysis of such racially encoded international development discourse in global information inequality literature, with a focus on the dynamics of narratives, imagery, and other systems of meaning. The paper both builds on existing critiques of LIS inforAbstract mation inequality discourse and contributes a global-facing perspective to a small body of LIS critical race work that has tended to focus on domestic (rather than international) contexts.

The universal claims of Western knowledge, then, colonial or postcolonial, turn necessarily upon the deafening suppression of its various racialized Others into silence.-David Theo Goldberg, i993, p. i5i

At the very first library conference I attended, one of the keynotes (Zuckerman, 2008) presented a dynamic talk on the pitfalls and possibilities of the Internet as a space of global knowledge-sharing and cosmopolitan problemsolving. He touched on a dizzying array of topics including Fiji Water, internet censorship, 4i9 scams, the One Laptop Per Child project, the relatively few undersea fibre-optic cables linking Africa to the web, and many more. In the midst of it all, the speaker displayed a composite image created by NASA showing a map of the world as it would appear from space if all areas of the world experienced a concurrent nighttime. Concentrations of electrical grid connections appeared glowing pale yellow against a dark blue backdrop of areas without electricity. Not surprisingly, Europe and North America featured the highest concentration of bright spots, but the speaker drew our attention to the map's center, which showed Africa with few concentrations of brightness and thus little capacity for the meaningful connectivity to the world that such light ostensibly represented. "The Dark Continent," he quipped, "is quite literally dark."

I begin with this story because it emblematizes what I want to suggest has come to be a recurring feature of globalist discourse in Library and Information Studies (LIS): the intersection of (well-intentioned) explanations of global poverty and injustice as matters of absent information and technology; and deployments (if inadvertent) of colonial narratives of race (in this case, the well-worn notion of Africa as the Dark Continent). This intersection represents the chief focus of the pages that follow, in which I draw on critical race and anti-colonial writing (particularly, anti-colonial critiques of development) to elaborate a critical reading of LIS global information inequality literature, that body of work concerned centrally with global suffering and its connection to disparities in information access related to available content, technologies, infrastructure, and skills.

Critical writing on race is virtually absent in LIS (Hall, 20i2; Honma, 2005; Hussey, 20i0; Pawley, 2006; Peterson, i995, i996, i999). …

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