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On September 10, CITAP hosted Daniel Greene to discuss his book The Promise of Access: Technology, Inequality, and the Political Economy of Hope in conversation with Tressie McMillan Cottom and Alice Marwick.

They discuss how the problem of poverty became a problem of technology and the skills to use it, how philanthropic donations have changed how public institutions operate, and how ‘learn to code’ became the default response to the broken labor markets of the twenty-first century.




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The Promise of Access is available now from MIT Press.

Other works and scholars referenced:


Kathryn Peters 0:08
Welcome to Does Not Compute, a podcast about technology, people, and power brought to you by the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life The University of North Carolina. For this special release, we’d like to share with you the audio from a recent event here at CITAP, a panel discussion with Daniel Greene, Alice Marwick, and Tressie McMillan Cottom. Daniel Greene is an assistant professor of Information Studies at the University of Maryland and the author of The Promise of Access: Technology, Inequality, and the Political Economy of Hope, now out from MIT Press. Drawing on years of fieldwork in Washington, DC schools, libraries and startups, it explores how the problem of poverty became a problem of technology and the skills to use it, and how learn to code became the default response to the broken labor markets of the 21st century. With Alice Marwick and Tressie McMillan Cottom, he discusses how philanthropic donations have changed how public institutions operate, the shining examples and many failures of techno-solutionism, and how we might break out of this zombie political economy. Thank you for joining us.

Tressie McMillan Cottom 1:12
So hello, everyone. Thanks, Alice. I would like to also extend a welcome to Dan and his book, this has been here for quite some time in this space, so I’ve been teaching Dan’s book for the the last year and a half, two years now, he’s been, he was kind enough to allow my students to get in a preview before it was even released. And so if you take any of my courses, actually, I was about to say one of them, but no I assign it in both of my graduate courses here at SILS and I assigned it even before I arrived here at Carolina, I’d like to tell you briefly why I ended up assigning the book in so many classes.

So my favorite part of this book is actually the subtitle, which is the Political Economy of Hope. So much about hope becomes an ideology and a strategy for the transfer of structural responsibility from the state to individuals in our society, right? It isn’t that things aren’t available to you an opportunity to structure is that you don’t believe enough, because belief in hope is fundamental to that other quintessential American event. And that is to work hard to get ahead. Right? It is the political economy of hope is the political economy of individual responsibility for structural failures. And so I love that subtitle of that book, it works in every class I teach today. That’s why I end up assigning that book so often.

And I actually wanted to start with a question that comes from the students because I was sounded so much, they loved the book, by the way, clearly written, you know, that’s my jam. I love a well written analysis is sharp, it moves both quickly and deeply. So it doesn’t sacrifice theoretical depth. And it does something really elegant in its comparative cases there in DC. But we’ll get into some methods and how you do that a little later. The first one is a question that comes from several students. But I took a version of that question from my students in last semester’s “Racial networks of racial capital,” of course I have to they read your book. And that question was really what’s so bad about taking rich people’s money, and making a nice fancy whatever. This gets at the heart, I think, technical solutionism, technology, and philanthropy. And what it does in a place like DC, is similar to how it happens everywhere. Not exactly the same, but similar. But really, what’s the point? Am I taking rich people’s money, and redoing the library of charter schools.

Daniel Greene 3:48
Thank you Tressie, thank you Alice, I’m really, really honored to be here. It is a deep, deep privilege to share with you guys in person, and to do it with two people who I deeply admire. So thank you both are really really appreciated. Yeah, have you guys had any issues with taking rich people’s money lately?


Tressie McMillan Cottom 4:13
I take it every time they offer it.

Daniel Greene 4:16
So yeah, I mean, let me talk about like some of the like the big goal, two big goals I had for the book, which I think it will lead nicely into that. So you know, the book started out much smaller and more boring as a comparative study of the digital divide, where I really, you know, most digital divide research is still survey based, moment in time, not longitudinal. Not really invested in people’s everyday lives. So I have a very basic idea of saying like, Okay, well I’m just going to hang out with people on different sides of the information economy and see how conductivity works in their lives, you know, as they gain or lose skills devices that can serve. As a good Marxist, I realized very quickly that two sides is really never the right way to look at these kind of things. There is always a relationship between the two.

And that’s what I wanted to work through was how this story about sending resources from the good side of the economy to the people left out of it ties those people together. And for me, that is the story that had to happen both from the top down policy-wise, and from the bottom up in terms of how these institutions work, and both of them are really important to that question, but the money because it’s about both why the money is sent, and then why it’s received. So from the top down, you know, we do the real fast version is that the wheels came off the bus in the 70s for a whole bunch of reasons, you know, we won’t go into today but there’s deep economic and political restructuring that we associate with things like you know, the gold standard oil shock deindustrialization, yadda yadda yadda. And at the same time, and partly to deal with this mass of newly unemployed currently employed, perilously employed people as factories close, enter a service economy. We saw a real punitive turn in social policy, such that prisons and policing exploded. And that even those parts of the state that were not themselves directly violent, saw them take a more punitive turn. So you know, much harder to get food stamps, and that sort of thing, you have to submit much more surveillance. And for, you know, an economy of a much more limited number of good jobs, that didn’t have the same kind of like series of steady vertical promotions through the firm that we’ve had the post war era, coupled with violent solutions to people who are outside the labor market, the Republicans who were in a sense, at that point, kind of reaching the climax, Reagan had a very easy answer to that.

And they said, no real contradiction here, you know, anyone can be anything they want. If you try hard, there are there good jobs out there and globalizing economy. And if you do not, then you are problem you must be contained, we will punish you and cage you. And that was really acceptable and led to a lot of success. The Democratic Party coalition kind of fell apart in the 70s as deindustrialization hit. And they were out of the White House for a very long time, we had a small blip with Carter, through which we got over, thank you very much, but they needed to regain power. And they did so with both a new alliance at the top, a new set of funders and donors that were very different from the kind of New Deal coalition. These were folks, especially based in technology and finance. So in the Democratic leadership coalition in the ad is the kind of group that produces people like winning or you see heavy involvement from executives at MCI, Apple, you know, businesses like that, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, and then at the bottom, voters, the New Deal coalition changes. So we no longer have the kind of multiracial working class that was barely held together in the 30s 40s and 50s. Instead of the kind of voting base and activist base, the Democratic Party is increasingly you know, people like me, you know, you could get white middle class professionals living in areas like, you know, route 128 near Boston, Montgomery County, Maryland, and of course, Silicon Valley. These folks are highly educated.

Tressie McMillan Cottom 9:15


Daniel Greene 9:17
they are not union, because they rose through the professions. They are big, big fans of social equality. But there’s often some pushback for redistributive measures that affect them personally. So Lily Geismer has an excellent book that is in part about this region and also about Boston that shows that you know, there’s a lot of folks in this class that are really happy to build like fair housing coalitions and make sure there’s no discrimination in the housing process. But when it comes to building affordable housing in our neighborhood, or God forbid, God forbid having two-way busing.

Tressie McMillan Cottom
Yeah, yeah.

Daniel Greene
That is acceptable. So it’s a new group of people.

Tressie McMillan Cottom
Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

Daniel Greene
Yes. And that this coalition shapes to the top and bottom solves the contradiction that was in republican policy between promise and punishment. Because they have now the internet, which is, you know, an early feature in the 90s of a lot of these professionals work spaces, which the Clinton administration, albeit through many private partnerships produces something of an industrial policy to commercialize and extend throughout the country. And the internet then becomes the somewhat real, mostly symbolic access to global labor markets. So anywhere the internet reaches, is an opportunity for competition. And ultimately, that is what access means to this coalition in the early 90s. And this is then what defines this kind of digital divide mission which the same folks coin, the Clinton White House, probably on the campaign against Dole.

And we are then, you know, that class of researchers–present company included, myself included–becomes part of this problem where we are, you know, we will put some nuance on it, we’ll say, well, you know, the digital divide is not just between people who have a modem and don’t have a modem, there’s all these spectrums involved. There’s different levels of access. We keep trying to nuance the problem while also skills Yes, absolutely. The health of the device repair, subscription costs, you know, there’s all these things that are that are very important, and real gaps absolutely exist. But every time that we go to nuance this problem, we return to the original framework of there’s people inside the economy and people who are not. That becomes extremely important for those institutions that teach people how to get into the economy. Our libraries, our schools, institutions have what we often call social reproduction. And the same democratic coalition, you know, building off years of neoliberal policy that were barely distinguishable for a majority of Republicans engages in a lot of fiscal austerity, balanced budgets are important.

Alice Marwick
Until they’re not

Daniel Greene
Until they’re not. And then the internet itself becomes sometimes have genuinely, sometimes an excuse, for rendering some of these institutions surplus, you know, who needs a library, when you got the Wikipedia, you know, we can really just throw computers to a lot of schools and you can do it that way. So this thing is supposed to promise individuals successfully market is also turned into something of a threat for institutions themselves. And because a lot of their peers have been shut down, places, like schools, and libraries in particular, are just overwhelmed. They have way too much to do. I mean, you talk to anyone, So you probably are librarians or teachers. You’re also a social worker, therapists,

Tressie McMillan Cottom 13:09
EMT, emergency medical, they are doing referrals, social work as it

Alice Marwick 13:17
may help with housing forms,

Daniel Greene 13:18
job search everything. So they have a few resources or legitimacy, and they’re just overwhelmed. But they recognize that there’s language that is coming from the top down, about the promise of access becomes something of a way out. Because while you know, every single service provider that I talked to, you know, at least on the ground level, was quite clear that poverty is extraordinarily complicated problem, and you can’t just give someone a computer and expect they’re going to, you know, log on and immediately join a startup or whatever, no one, no one really believed that. They said that, these are the programs that we must pursue because those are the things that gain us money: the grants, the philanthropy, they gave us legitimacy in the eyes of the state, those politicians that were thinking of cutting your budget, now think more highly of you. And they make your mission much simpler. You know, you have all of these competing demands, you know, even for something as small as like in a library, the big questions always, like, Are you allowed to sleep here? Now, if it’s an open refuge for everybody, and one of the few public spaces left in our lives, but yeah, maybe take a nap. But if the mission of the library is to ensure that your training and getting back into the labor market, and sleep is obviously not that you need to be kicked out,

Tressie McMillan Cottom 14:45
Yeah. It’s like sleeping on the job.

Daniel Greene 14:49
Exactly. You wouldn’t sleep in the office. You wouldn’t sleep at the office and that’s, you know, that’s refrain that I hear from people on lots of things. The library is like you wouldn’t do extra why in the office, so we have to get rid of it. So the philanthropy question, it’s, you know, on the one hand, you don’t have a lot of other choices, I think we have to recognize that our institutions have been forced into a place, especially schools and libraries, which are so, so dependent on taxpayer funding. Libraries, in particular, are also always funded from local taxes. So when the recession hits, and the needs go up, and like many more people start going to the library, their budgets plummet at the exact same time. So they’re forced into taking a lot of [unclear], and they really don’t have a lot of other choices, and they have to walk the walk in order to look appealing to it, they will change their mission, their personnel, even the way library looks in order to stay alive, and start solving problems on these terms. So I think like, you know, good or bad, there’s, there’s not a lot of choice.

But even but once the money hits, there becomes a degree of this is really very much a book about organizational change, that becomes a degree of path dependency. you rearrange your offices, your facilities, when we get these grants are going to stay on the mayor’s good side. And then that simply is how you’re going to solve problems from that point forward. Because you’ve simply, you know, the building looks different, you don’t go to work the same way anymore. So it really ends up changing the culture, changing the operations, changing the kind of people who are employed there is really important for public services, because a lot of what we see at this particular historical moment is a generational conflict. That is also a class conflict where you see, especially middle is very important in DC, in middle aged black women, usually with college degrees, who are working in libraries and schools being displaced by younger, cheaper techie or folks, whether it’s directly through something like Teach for America, or indirectly through saying, you know, we’re going to buy you out, but we can have a crew of people what MLK Library DC called the hipster contingent, who can operate the, you know, the 3-D printer,

Tressie McMillan Cottom 17:19
It’s always about that damn 3-D printer. So I love this point about organizational change in the book, it is one of the most engaging parts for, I think, my student readers, and also for our peers, our colleagues are doing this work. So that’s an important piece that we talk about the top down the bottom up, how do you tell people then internalize, act upon and try to make points of differentiation in the organization based on trying to fulfill or respond to what you call the access doctrine? If it comes about adapting that, and he’s really a nice kind of individual strategic ways, so that even people who mean well, to your point, right, who think they are resisting the access doctrine and the politics that are reshaping their work, like some of the middle class, black women who have been on that sort of professional ladder of gendered labor in libraries, and schools, also become part of the narrative making a mean and making in that context, how does that happen? What does that look like?

Daniel Greene 18:27
Yeah, I think you can see that on both sides, for me it was important, always to capture the experiences of service providers, and the people receiving services. So on people receiving services, you have to change your help-seeking behaviors, you have to, you know, present yourself a certain way in order to receive the services that you need. And this is can be as basic as what’s going to get you more time on the computer, if you want, you know, you need an extra 15-20 minutes, the thing that will get you more time on the computer is filling out a job application, not family history, or something like that, you know, and then from the service provider side, I, you know, at minimum, there’s a lot of stress. And I think a lot about one teacher at um, and I should say ahead of the methods choice, like it was really important for me to go to field sites that were trying their best. And were really good examples of trying to make it work in the present moment in order to make these organizational processes clear, because it’s really easy for all of us as researchers to find the you know, the shady charter school, the shady startup or something that is a terrible example of what’s going on. So the, you know, in in charter schools in particular, I’m thinking one teacher who, they didn’t have art classes, they had digital music and game design, it’s a STEM-focused charter school. And this teacher who they call it, the OWL, the old white lady. So wonderful when he’s a great generation of, like, they’re coming up on 60 now, like punks in the 80s in DC, it’s a really great cohort. And she, you know, built a real like open drop-in space for these kids in her studio, they knew they could come by and talk to her about everything: she made room for them, she kept food aside, people need food, did everything she possibly could. And then she still at the end of the day, she still needs to kind of filter like the game design class through, ultimately, a shark tank competition, where they have like, they pitch these things I come in to pretend that I’m an entrepreneur who’s going to fund things as one of the judges, they bring in an actual PC tech guy who became the standard ‘Look who’s who’s saying, like, you know, this is a real experience, I had to give a 30 minute elevator pitch to someone the other day to give me $10 million,” and you hear a kid in the back yell, ‘I worked at Chipotle yesterday.’ So she’s still filtering it through this issue, because that’s the thing that the school gives to her. And that’s the bargain that she has to take in order to make a welcoming space. You know, that’s, that’s the bargain she has to buy into. And then I remember after that competition, she just collapses, like the weight of having to do all that work and make all this happen while still making a safe space for these kids. And she was just drained, she quit two years later. Just because it’s it’s it’s a lot of work.

Alice Marwick 21:32
So what that kind of brings up for me is that when you say like, it’s important for us to look at spaces that are really trying to make this work. I think another reason why it’s important to look at those spaces is because they’re often held up as like proof of concept like this is achievable. And even in those spaces, we see how how fragile they are and how the lines, the fault lines are really visible. The cracks are really visible. And reading reading through, I really enjoyed the stories of the patrons, the teachers, the librarians, like I love hearing about the lives of the people who are using these spaces both as patrons or customers or and as, as service providers. But it made me think you know, at this point in your book kind of is very tied to the 2008 recession, I think in a lot of different ways. At this point, we have probably about 20 years of like this modern techno-solutionism repeatedly failing. And I’m thinking of Morgan Ames’s book on One Laptop Per Child, The Charisma Machine, I’m thinking of Christo Sims’s book on a charter school in New York, that was like a gamified charter school, Disruptive Fixation, two great books to read against this book. All of these things are like these hyped up situations in which these technical solutions projects that are trumped by Silicon Valley are like, how love is like this is it, this word for all our resources into this, and the the school also highly well funded, you know, have all, like, doubled the funding of all the other DC public schools, and yet it still fails.

So why do we keep coming back? Why do we keep embracing this narrative when there’s like, so much empirical evidence that it just does not work?

Daniel Greene 23:13
Yeah, I really appreciate it. That is really like, the core thing that ended up driving the book for me. I mean, in all honesty it’s not what I realized was that the core until really deep into the writing process. Which, it happens!


Because that’s ethnography. Because there there are a lot of people a lot smarter than me, you know, like, like Virginia Eubanks, or like Peter Capelli, who have shown that, you know, this skills gap story that we’re telling each other, it doesn’t exactly make sense, you know, at bare minimum, it’s more complicated than that. Because we know that, you know, the majority of STEM graduates don’t work in STEM, wages have been stagnant for a long time, especially as you know, PCs start rolling out, you know, these problems persist over time.

But, and I think this is where I try to distinguish myself from from work like, like Christo’s and Morgan’s, the underlying political economic conditions have not changed. And thus, the institutional directives have not changed. And thus our approach remains the same. Because the it is not as though you know, one of my underlying principles, right is things that, you know, people are smart and not tricked. It is not as though everyone is is you know, watching TED talks and then instantly walking out to make policy based on what they see a lot of, you know, although we know that has to happen.

Alice Marwick
No, it does happen.

Daniel Greene
But I think like, especially in service providers it is not, you know, there’s a lot of people out there and they’re, they’re complicated, they’re trying to make it work. And as long as the labor market stinks, there’s not enough good jobs to go around, as long as we’re still largely pursuing a punitive social policy for people who are outside the labor market, and as long as we’re pursuing austerity at the local level, this is going to be the thing we lean on because it is, at the top, the thing that garners consent to this unequal economy. You know, I remember in probably about May, when the labor shortage and hospitality was becoming really obvious, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimundo, former governor of Rhode Island, was giving an interview about it. And, you know, when they asked her like, what should we, you know, what message would you give to applicants who are seeing all these signs, they can’t get something, can’t get the job they want? And she said, Well, you know, I think what we’re seeing is partly that people haven’t used the pandemic to get enough new digital skills. And because it’s just a reflex at this point, like,

Alice Marwick
I learned how to use tik tok during the break, acutally.

Daniel Greene
I mean, our new vice president did the same thing in 2019 ah, you saw a video of her going to a black barbershop in Des Moines, I want to say, and two young women come up to her, they’re both students at Iowa, and you know, she just asked them what they do. And it’s like, well, you know, I want to be a lawyer, I want to be a doctor. And of course the reply is, I’d say you need to learn to code. You know, you that’s the future, both of these professions, because it’s just a reflex at this point, because I think one of the things we realized as our institutions kind of work on autopilot during the largest social crisis of our time, is that they’re out of ideas, like there is just, there’s really just a kind of a zombie political economy that accompanies what, you know, what The Economist called secular stagnation at the bottom for the last 20 years or so maybe even longer than that, where we just have not been able to try anything new, because the balance of power has not significantly shifted.

I am a little optimistic that if that is changing, you know, there was the possibly the largest rebellion in American history. And last year, there is a very real labor shortage that is really driving employers in the bad right now. So things may change. But I think that is the kind of zombie politics of, you know, repeating the same thing over and over again, is going to be around as long as those underlying conditions change, uh, stick around.

Tressie McMillan Cottom 27:33
I think it was two years ago, something I thought I’d never see in my lifetime. The New York Times the general editorial, the one where it is not named, from the editorial board, writes the counter-skills gap essay, and says that the skills gap is, is a narrative. This false narrative is something that many of us have been saying forever, they’ve been laughed at as a legitimate political idea. And I see it on the on the editorial page of the New York Times. It wouldn’t matter for politicians if it was in the Wall Street Journal, to be fair, I thought it was at least, I couldn’t believe that we were finally pushing back against the idea of the skipped skills narrative and how much it animates politically, of which the internet and technology, especially techno-philanthropy, undergirds that. And then it almost immediately the next week, Biden gives a, he was still on the campaign trail, he gives a speech the very next week, where they cite how they’re going to close the digital divide, to partner with the private sector to do that, which lends again credence to your idea that this is not about the economic rehab. It’s not about economic empiricism, it’s this is something that is about a fundamental article of faith at this point, what are you gonna say? What are you gonna say, as a politician or as an economic sort of, you know, head of state? What is what what do we expect somebody like Janet Yellen, to say?

Daniel Freene 29:02
Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, if there’s the this president in the past one, despite being different a number of ways, her really do feel like last days of Rome kind of stuff, whereas, you know, Trump is just on autopilot repeating things from the 80s that have, you know, somehow filtered through his Swiss cheese brain. And Biden is fighting the wars of 30 or 40 years ago, and a lot of ways while still, you know, making major inroads in economic policy that I’m frankly pleasantly surprised by. It is a reflex at this point, you know, in anything we see that we’re the new president because he looks like a president on TV. The economic common sense is changing. They let David Autor do an op-ed in the Times this past week that said there’s a labor shortage, good. Shocking to do that. Now he’s president of the AEA so it is absolutely changing.

What is not changing is employers interests, and making sure that all of the costs of training are offloaded on to individuals outside of work. And the era of training people up through a variety of positions in one job, or in one firm is over, it’s done. The way most people get promotions these days is not vertically, but horizontally by moving to another firm

Tressie McMillan Cottom 30:29
You take the individual cost of your training, your student loans, you go get another credential, and you leave your job.

Daniel Greene 30:36
Yes This is such a vicious cycle for universities in particular, where we are, you know, on the one hand, we’re totally illegitimate because we use all these airy fairy subjects that have nothing to do with real jobs. On the other hand, the fate of the world depends on us teaching our students, you know, Ruby on Rails or whatever. Because our employers are simply not going to take on that cost themselves, despite the fact that they are obviously the best people to define what skills you need to do a particular job. You know, there’s simply no way for something like a bachelor’s program, which you know, is like turning a large ship, it takes a very long time to plan these classes out and new skills out and stuff like that. There’s simply no way for that to respond to whatever the new programming language is this year, whatever the new product cycle is, next year, like these institutions are simply not built to do that.

Kathryn Peters
Ruby is so 2010. It’s all Rust going forward.

Alice Marwick 31:32
I don’t even know what that is.

Tressie McMillan Cottom 31:33
They joke about it on all the on Reddit all the time. I don’t know why I’ve know that, but I do.

Alice Marwick 31:41
So I actually wanted to ask the question about our role as educators of both undergraduate and graduate students, you know, I, since my own undergraduate education some years ago, now, there’s, I’ve seen a huge change in the amount of unpaid internships that my students feel required to do. Almost none of my friends, I was one of the only people I knew who did an internship as an undergrad, and it was paid, and it was in tech. Nobody else I knew did one. And we all just went and got entry-level jobs at mostly random companies. And they told us, they taught us how to do what we were doing. And I’m not gonna say that was like, you know, we went to I went to an elite school, like, this was not the experience of most people, right. But I feel like that experience doesn’t exist anymore, for the most part. And for graduate students, a lot of us are training our graduate students in skills they will never be able to use because they will not be able to get tenure track jobs. Right?

So how do we think about our own complicity? But also, is there a way that we can resist those things? Like, are there changes that we can make as educators that will benefit our students and help kind of push back on these two services systems of precarity?

Daniel Greene 32:53
Yeah, absolutely. And I have absolutely had the same experience, too, right? I mean, like many of us, probably teaching is the best part of my job, I adore our students in Information Science, they’re truly wonderful. They have a hunger for the kind of social-technical politics that we’re talking about here. That you just simply do not see elsewhere on campus, there’s a lot of first gen students, real hustlers. Just amazing. But then, you know, when I sit down and talk to this, especially the first gen students and say, you know, just casually like, hey, why info sci? And it’s, you know, it’s usually some version of, you know, this is what my parents would pay for, or this is what thing? Yep. And you know, that’s, they really do feel that they take one step outside a given path, that it’s done, the stakes are, the stakes are very real for them. I don’t think the solutions are real, but the stakes are very, very real. As far as what we can do about it, you know, I think, for educators, really anyone working in these kind of helping professions, there is always something of a vertical relationship, you know, I, you know, things turned out well for me, right? I went to school, like I learned some skills, I got a good job. Now I’m on the stage, you’re on the seats, you have to listn to me.

And then there’s a million zillion things that are more important to that journey than my path through those institutions, from sheer luck, to family wealth, to, you know, being in one of the few areas during the recession that was not completely cratered, because I was in DC. There were jobs available and there’s tremendous things that are there besides my personal biography. But so many of the helping professions try to use that personal biography kind of as the engine to improve service recipients, you know, I try to I try to give you the knowledge in my head, the librarian tries to model healthy information seeking behavior for the students for their, we can see similar things in social work, you know, lots of these other professionals. And often that can have a punitive action to it, you know, if you if you don’t take that lesson to show significant respect, and perhaps you will be punished, the library has its own police force for exactly this reason.

But I’m optimistic. I think I’m more optimistic politically now there any other time in my life. And I talked about this a lot in the end of the book, where, you know, if you had told me 10 years ago, that in 2018, we would have seen teacher strikes in West Virginia, and Oklahoma, Arizona, I would have asked what you were smoking. Like the the idea was completely, completely out beyond my thinking. And what those teachers unions often say, and maybe not even legal unions, is that, you know, my students’ learning conditions are my working conditions. And just like that, we need to remember that the two sides of the digital divide are not separated by some gulf, but have a clear relationship to each other based on the own and where they live, mine’s mostly about the city, we talk about the country too. So providers and recipients have a relationship too that is that is different from and much richer than just giving them the knowledge that’s in my head and training them up, like I need them and they need me. And that is, you know, a big lofty thing in terms of making, you know, making intellectual life work. But in terms of like political strategy, it’s very basic. Insofar as like, if you’re a public school teacher, and you go on strike, the first thing the mayor is going to say is you’re hurting those kids, you so-and-sos.

But if you–as Chicago and Karen Lewis, rest in piece taught us how to do–is you do the groundwork of working with the community, making them see that the school is a space, not just for skills training, but for all the things we talked about: the library for community life, for food, for safety, for health, for all of these things that your kids need, that the whole community means that they will see that your interests are shared, and you can do that thing together. Now that changes your identity, you’re no longer the sage on the stage anymore, you know, you are you are in on the ground with them, your authority is gone. And that can be very scary in a lot of ways. You know, we see that all over the country, you know, and during the rebellions last year, LA teachers staged a quick strike again. And during the previous collective bargaining agreement had great success in saying that, not only are we playing for, you know, wages and hours and fewer seats, and more teachers, but we want to make sure our students are not frisked by the cops every day in school, we want to ensure Black Lives Matter in school. We know that I have to buy my own chalk, but there’s hundreds of millions of dollars being thrown into the police department, that consultant, you know, and by taking away that sage on the stage, save your mission instead of struggling alongside with people not as the professor but as a worker and an institution and a community.

I think that does show some path forward and there are universities across the world where people have acted on this a record is amazing example that a lot of us can learn from is unique is not necessarily replicable. But good lessons. Similar things happening in you know, parts of the UK. Yes, absolutely. In Latin America. There you know, there is hope there is going to be a hard fight. It’s going to require us to think not like professors, but like community members. But I think we can do it. Because we frankly have no other options. But we got to do.

Tressie McMillan Cottom 39:09
I think when you when we were talking about that I thought about the inflection point of COVID of where we had a an external shock that forced frankly, at full adoption of technology solutionism. And like even the most generous interpretation, it failed that everything we tried to make it do not almost not a single platform that had been introduced as an institutional solution actually was able to deliver at scale on demand when we needed it to resume didn’t work. We ended up online testing didn’t work. So then we into interjected online surveillance for the testing, which also didn’t work. We did everything that had been promised to solve the problem. And I’ve gotta think that where the groundwork from Occupy, from Black Lives Matter, in a moment when we just see sort of the graveyard of all the technologies that didn’t do what we needed to do during COVID, that we are in a position to rethink what some of those technologies can and cannot do in our institutions.

Daniel Greene 40:16
And I think it’s, I mean, it’s another moment where you’re getting to see some students are out of ideas. They’re just throwing the, you know, what if MOOCs? from 10 years ago back at the wall again.

Now, which obviously, the pandemic is deeply unequal in terms of who’s affected how, why and where, but there is an element of it in universities that flattens the hierarchies that otherwise prevent us from really realizing our shared interests and make us look a lot more like secondary education, elementary education, because tenured professors still get the virus, you know, because everyone hates Zoom. And we miss all the stuff that is not just the class, you know, the content delivery, but the conversations in the hallway and that kind of thing. The community space that we built the university around is obviously not something that can be delivered over Zoom. So there is an element of hope there is a lack of some of these hierarchies and makes people realize common interests outside of the university. I think that the part of that is is a significant reason why the protests last year were so overwhelmingly multiracial it was that it was a moment where especially like, young white people without a professional destiny really realized that when the chips were down, yeah, you know, we’re all in it together.

Tressie McMillan Cottom

Kathryn Peters 41:41
Thank you for listening to this special episode of Does Not Compute, featuring Daniel Greene, Tressie McMillan Cottom, and Alice Marwick discussing The Promise of Access: Technology, Inequality, and the Political Economy of Hope. To join future CITAP events, follow us on Twitter at @unc_citap, sign up for our newsletter at, or subscribe to Does Not Compute on your preferred podcasting service. Thanks so much for tuning in.



Does Not Compute is supported by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Made by:  Joanna Burke (CITAP project coordinator) & Kathryn Peters (producer)

Music: Ketsa, Parallel Worlds

Art: Logo by Contia’ Janetta Prince