Defining Digital Justice
Sep 8, 2020
George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. By now you know the story of the people behind these names and have learned about the violence that cut their lives short. You have heard their names cried out in the streets along with demands to dismantle systemic racism and you have witnessed how their untimely deaths launched a global conversation about racism, justice, and the value of black lives. For many, these three names reinvigorated a hunger for social justice and kicked off months of protesting, donating, reading, and conversing through confusion, anger, guilt, hurt, and hope. With this historic and emotional summer drawing to a close, I find myself wondering what will become of the hunger. As the shock and outrage subside, and corporate promises to “do better” ease mounting public pressure, I wonder how best to ensure this drive for social change lasts.
Black Lives Matter Protest, photo courtesy of Chris Henry via unsplash.com
Personally, I have struggled. In the early weeks of protest, I took in too much information and assumed too much responsibility at once—donating to any fundraising campaigns I could find, reposting articles and resources to my social media pages, gluing my eyes to Twitter for the latest updates on protests across the country, and painfully relaying my experiences to colleagues and friends in hopes of shining a light on how casual and insidious racism can be. This approach quickly led to feelings of overwhelm and made maintaining consistent action difficult. It was unrealistic to believe that I could have my finger on the pulse of all injustice happening in all places to all people. Since then, I have taken a new approach informed by my work in international development: Pick a technical area. And by this, I mean assessing the many worthy causes under the social justice umbrella and picking just one or two to monitor closely. Given my passion for cooking and professional background in agriculture and food security, food justice has been an ideal way to concentrate my time and attention. Passionate about nature or combating climate change? Environmental justice might be the best way for you to stay engaged in ongoing conversations about race, resources, and access.
With so many denominations under the social justice umbrella, I began to question which unifying causes might speak to the ICT for Development (ICT4D) community. As demonstrated by my colleague’s recent blog post on the digital divide in the United States, there are plenty of issues linking technology and equity that our sector is well-suited to address. However, in the way that food justice promotes equity in the production, sale, and consumption of food, with special attention paid to cross-cutting issues such as labor and nutrition, I wondered if such a comprehensive understanding of justice in the digital world existed. Digital justice.
My research unearthed many meanings for this one idea. For example, I came across some resources that referred to digital justice as the digitization and modernization of the legal system (think courtroom technology and innovations in dispute resolution), while organizations such as the American Bar Association (ABA) have used it as a way to describe its contributions to criminal justice reform. For example, the ABA’s Digital Justice Initiative aims to “resolve conflicts between law enforcement and communities of color and persons with disabilities through technology.”
While there is no one correct interpretation, I gravitated towards that of the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition (DDJC). The DDJC, which actually developed a set of Digital Justice Principles, defines digital justice as a cousin to media justice—concerned with communication as a human right and elevating the participation of those “traditionally excluded from and attacked by media and technology.” The four pillars of the principles are: Access, Participation, Common Ownership, and Healthy Communities. Each pillar is further defined below:
Digital justice ensures that all members of our community have equal access to media and technology, as producers as well as consumers.
Digital justice provides multiple layers of communications infrastructure in order to ensure that every member of the community has access to life-saving emergency information.
Digital justice values all different languages, dialects, and forms of communication.
Digital justice prioritizes the participation of people who have been traditionally excluded from and attacked by media and technology.
Digital justice advances our ability to tell our own stories, as individuals and as communities.
Digital justice values nondigital forms of communication and fosters knowledge-sharing across generations.
Digital justice demystifies technology to the point where we can not only use it, but create our own technologies and participate in the decisions that will shape communications infrastructure.
Digital justice fuels the creation of knowledge, tools, and technologies that are free and shared openly with the public.
Digital justice promotes diverse business models for the control and distribution of information, including cooperative business models and municipal ownership.
Digital justice provides spaces through which people can investigate community problems, generate solutions, create media, and organize together.
Digital justice promotes alternative energy, recycling and salvaging technology, and using technology to promote environmental solutions.
Digital justice advances community-based economic development by expanding technology access for small businesses, independent artists, and other entrepreneurs.
Digital justice integrates media and technology into education to transform teaching and learning, to value multiple learning styles, and to expand the process of learning beyond the classroom and across the lifespan.
While reviewing the DDJC’s principles for this post, it quickly occurred to me that the reason its interpretation of digital justice may have resonated more than others is that there are correlations to the Principles for Digital Development. For example, the digital development principle of using open standards, open data, open source, and open innovation, aligns closely with the digital justice principles of access and common ownership. The digital development principle of designing with the user mirrors the digital justice principle of healthy communities and participation. Even as I (virtually) look around DAI, I see hints of the digital justice principles in how my colleagues endeavor to demystify technology, integrate technology into learning opportunities, and never hesitate to point out that a digital solution might not always be the best fit.
So, does this mean that as members of the digital development community we get to pat ourselves on the back and go back to business as usual? Of course not. Recognizing the related principles shared between digital development and digital justice as defined by the DDJC alone will not lead to the sustainable contributions to social justice that I and others hope to see. Each of us must practice greater intentionality, commitment, and awareness of the relevant movements happening in our own cities and states. For example, I was completely unaware of the coalition of 18 organizations in Washington, D.C. fighting to stop budget cuts to digital inclusion activities in the city’s budget for next year. For context, 25 percent of households in the District don’t have broadband access (50 percent in predominantly black communities east of the Anacostia River) and 14 percent of unemployed adults are not digitally literate. While COVID-19 has necessitated budget cuts in cities across the country, I believe that these are relevant and important causes for Washington, D.C.’s growing digital development community to advocate for. In an effort to avoid replicating the tyranny of the expert, any future participation in local digital justice or equity issues must be informed by self-education and humility. I look forward to learning more about the digital justice and equity organizations operating in the District as well as national entities such as the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. With these small steps, I believe that each of us in our individual capacity can ensure that the hunger for social justice stays alive in our work and personal lives for years to come.