The time is now: Dr. Ernest J. Wilson comments on the technology revolution and African American competitiveness – Interview

Dr. Ernest J. Wilson III comments on the technology revolution and African American competitiveness

Dr. Ernest J. Wilson III, associate professor of government and
African American studies at the University of Maryland — with a
doctorate and a master’s degree in political science from the
University of California-Berkeley and a bachelor’s from Harvard — has
been consulting with international organizations and scholars in such
places as Malaysia, Morocco, and Brazil about the implications of the
technological revolution that is changing the nature of scholarship and
society for many years. The information revolution is, as he puts it,
“really big stuff.”

And yet…

“As African Americans,” he says, “the perspective we can bring to this revolution is more than a touch of skepticism.”

The following are edited excerpts from a conversation Wilson had with Black Issues senior writer Karin Chenoweth.

What kind of skepticism are you talking about?

There are two points of skepticism: first, that this is the
hyperbole economy. It may be [that] a lot of this technology stuff is
hooey. As Americans, we like new stuff. We like instant coffee, and all
the things have to be the newest and the latest. This may just be
satisfying our national cultural propensity for killing the past and
anticipating the future. It may be like eight-track [tapes]. Remember,
people said cable television — would revolutionize television and it
hasn’t. So it may be not the digital revolution but the digital change.

On the other hand, it may be really important. And I think for
African American educators, even if it isn’t a revolution, it’s still
important. Whenever these things come up in the United States, if the
group you’re a member of is already at the bottom of society, the
perspective one brings to the national debate is how much worse off is
my community likely to be?

It seems as if this is the first industrial revolution in which
African Americans have the possibility of not being left behind.

That’s a good point. But whether we were in control or not, [the
last industrial revolution] sure did affect us. My grandfather got on a
train in 1918 to leave the South. And he put his money on the table and
said take me as far away as this money will take me — in part because
the train came there in South Carolina and because factories were
opening up, jobs were being created. The industrial revolution of the
United States meant that a bunch of African Americans were all clumped
together [in the South], and fifty to seventy years later — whammo —
they were all over the place. [The industrial revolution] affected
social structure, class structure, quality of life — for African
Americans as well as all Americans. It was a big deal for us.

The question is whether these big changes are of the same order or not.

There’s a whole group of people who say that the information
revolution is the greatest thing since sliced bread; it will make all
societies more democratic; everybody will grow fast; there will be
greater transparency; we can all work at home and sit in the sunshine;
and it will make society qualitatively better and more equal.

There are two problems with that. If you look at two trends in
American society — one is the introduction of the Internet, which has
been going up; and then you look at the rate of inequality, [which] has
also been going up. You have to at least ask the question, what is the
contribution of these technologies to greater inequality?

Some surveys indicate that middle class African Americans use
computers and online services at a rate greater than their White
counterparts. Is the issue race or class?

That’s one of those debates that’s hugely important. I’m a little
disturbed at the lack of critical thinking and speaking out on this
issue within the African American community. I haven’t seen a huge
amount of work by African American intellectuals and scholars
addressing the issue of the impact of the information revolution on
communities of color.

Mostly what you see is, “It’s bad and it’s going to be bad.”

That’s the Chicken Little approach; that is not scholarship; that
is not serious research; that is not a proposal of public policy
agendas.

This has not been the hot-button topic in the academic circuit, or
the NGO [nongovernmental organization] circuit, or the civil rights
organization circuit. That’s beginning to change. We’re no longer as
[far] behind the curve.

It’s my experience that there are minorities — Hispanics, African
Americans, Asian Americans — in every field. I go to Malaysia, Geneva,
South Africa, and I see African Americans engaged [in the information
revolution].

The challenge of the next five years is to diffuse that insight
beyond a relatively small group of people so that it gets into our
schools, our curriculum, our research programs, our marches and
demonstrations, our public policy.

How should the university community be responding?

There’s a kind of collective action problem. It’s in everybody’s
interest to get up to speed on these technologies. But it’s in nobody’s
individual interest to take the time that’s required to put together a
consistent and sustainable program for [information technology]
instruction.

Most of my colleagues feel so pressured already: they’re supposed
to publish; they’re supposed to teach; they’re supposed to do community
service. For minority faculty, we do double or triple duty because we
do stuff in our departments, our faculties, our universities, then on
the national and international scene. And don’t forget mentoring —
which, when you’re coming up for tenure, you don’t get credit for.

So what should happen?

Universities need to take responsibility. What they really need to
do is not have these big fancy teaching theaters, although that’s
helpful. They need to pay people to hold the hand of faculty; to say,
“Here’s how you can put all your teaching materials on the Web so you
don’t need to have a course pack. Here’s how you can create a listserve
so the students can talk to each other and you can monitor it. Here’s
how to set up a chat group with people in South Africa. Here’s how your
students can do research on the Web.”

And the things you could do with CD-ROMs. Imagine a CD-ROM on [jazz
musician] Charlie Parker and his antecedents showing what was going on
in writing at the same time [he was playing professionally], what was
going on in theater at the same time: Click and you hear Langston
Hughes reading a staccato poem influenced by Charlie Parker who was
influenced by …. It’s very, very exciting stuff.

There is enough here for scholars of every discipline: psychology,
people who are interested in the cultural landscape, engineering,
architecture, literary theory, political science. And that’s the kind
of excitement I hope we can bring.

But you’re not even sure the technology is good for us.

My thinking about this is that it’s very double edged. We can point
to the good news and we can point to the bad news. The good news from
the African American perspective is that it may break down the choke
hold that the networks have over the ability of minority groups to
communicate with one another. I’m told the fastest growing Web sites
are hip-hop Web sites. The hip-hop culture and the Web were made for
each other. One can envision a future ten years from now of a digital
Harlem Renaissance that could be intellectually and culturally very
exciting.

The flip side of that is that there could be the dilution of
African American culture, the dumbing down of culture. Some of the
television shows — like “Martin” — are like “Amos’N Andy” updated:
quick repartee, but it’s all about sex and violence and material stuff,
and the people don’t have a brain in their heads. I’m not sure I want
my kids to have that as a role model — Black kids or White kids.

There’s a whole range of stuff. Some of it is very progressive, and
beautiful, and has the right message. But then there’s this
shake-your-booty stuff. And guess which one the media picks up on?

So is this information technology good?

It’s like a tsunami. It’s happening. The question is whether there
are some things that can be done at the margins in public policy so
that the positive effects can be most widely distributed and the
negative effects can be as limited as possible. The bottom line is, get
on board — quickly.

For more information about Dr. Wilson, who is currently writing a
book about information technologies and the developing countries, go to
his Web site at www.bsos.umd.edu/cidcm/wilson/>.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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