White Flight and the Internet

Facebook, likewise, is imposing the right limits—it’s almost New Victorian in that regard. It is a connection engine that successfully mirrors how most of us want to live our lives. (Most people live in suburbs for a reason.) If the overall trend on the Internet is the individual user’s loss of control as corporations make money off information you unwittingly provide, Facebook is offering a way to get some of that control back. In Facebook’s vision of the Web, you, the user, are in control of your persona.

“About Facebook”, Michael Hirschorn, theAtlantic.com, October 2007

Parallel transportation networks—evolving out of the time-share aircraft companies such as Warren Buffett’s NetJets—will cater to this group, leapfrogging its members from one secure, well-appointed lily pad to the next.” That elite world is already largely in place, but Robb predicts that the middle class will soon follow suit, “forming suburban collectives to share the costs of security.” These “‘armored suburbs’ will deploy and maintain backup generators and communications links” and be patrolled by private militias “that have received corporate training and boast their own state-of-the-art emergency response systems.”

“Disaster Capitalism: The new economy of catastrophe”
Naomi Klein, Harpers Magazine, September 8, 2007 (There’s no public text but the link to Naomi Klein’s website is here.)

After reading these two pieces I was struck by an odd parallel. There has already been some controversy about trying to understand how social networking sites are reproducing class patterns. And, of course, there has been a lot of controversy about Net Neutrality, although that seems to have died down. Social networking has also been criticized for the superficiality of its connections.

What strikes me is that Hirschorn may be talking about the Internet version of the social process described in such frightening detail by Klein. Klein’s argument is that the very same ideological bias towards privatization has shaped both the Iraq War and the ongoing response to Katrina.

That seems obvious, if you have been reading about the contracts the Bush administration awarded a variety of companies in both places. “Shaw, Bechtel, CH2M Hill—all top contractors in Iraq—were handed contracts on the Gulf Coast to provide mobile homes to evacuees just ten days after the levees broke.” Klein notes, “Their contracts ended up totaling $3.4 billion, no open bidding required.” That”s just the tip of the melting iceberg.

Less obvious is the shopping cart full of privatization projects Klein details, from privatized “contract cities” outside of Atlanta to Blackwater’s growing mercenary army. Strangely enough, the same private firms guarding diplomats in Baghdad are now guarding wealthy suburbs in New Orleans. If Klein’s piece doesn’t make the hairs go up on your arm something is seriously wrong.

I am fairly certain that Hirschorn is not suggesting that Internet access be divided along class lines. (Klein reminds us that this has already happened in our medical system.) On the other hand, many have suggested recently that this sort of system– the more money you have the better your access– is inevitable. Indeed, it is already true, given the price difference between broad band and dial up. But Hirschorn’s piece hints that the very same racial and class impulses that created the suburb may well be finding expression in Facebook. Is this the start of white flight on the Internet?

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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