Issue 7 - Spring 2001
Historical inequalities condition new social developments. (1) In virtually every society at the dawn of the 21st century, polarities of income, class, color, and space are translating into a digital divide. (2) This divide is between those who can access and use phones, computers, and the Internet and those who cannot. There are economic, cultural, and also spatial dimensions to this divide, because, for example, the lower income inner city community is excluded structurally and physically, living in unmarked but well defined neighborhoods with different or fewer resources.

Digital divide measures usually focus on individual or household access. However, the digital divide also involves social applications of technology together with the content of networked information. Government surveys provide the most authoritative data to date on access. United States government statistics indicate household rates of access as: telephones 94.2%, computers 51.0% and Internet access 41.5%. At the highest income levels (annual household income of $75,000 or more) computers are in 86% of the households, with little difference between Blacks and whites at this income level.

But on the whole the digital divide is also a color divide, or as the U.S. Department of Commerce put it in 1999, "The digital divide is fast becoming a ‘racial ravine.’" (3) The current gap between Blacks and whites can be seen in 2000 household rates: 46.1% of all white households have Internet access, as against 23.5% of Black households. (4)

In addition to home and work, people access computers and the Internet in public settings such as government institutions (e.g. libraries and schools), commercial enterprises (e.g. copy shops and private business schools), and other venues making up the public sphere. (5) We call this public computing: public access to and use of information and communications technology. The community technology center (CTC) is a generic name given to a computer lab open to the public. Especially with recent government and private funding, CTCs are multiplying. They have formed into associations, often funding related, at the local, state, and national levels (table 1). Toledo, Ohio, the location of this study, is typical, with three associations at work, sometimes in coordination. (6)

Table 1. Community Technology Center Associations: Toledo, Ohio, and US, with Excerpted Mission Statements

Coalition to Access Technology and Networking in Toledo (CATNeT) · Founded 1996
· 22 members
... to contribute to the empowerment of low income citizens and community-based organizations by providing or facilitating access to the technological tools that are more routinely available to our community's more affluent citizens and organizations.

Ohio Community Computing Centers Network (OCCCN)
· Founded 1995
· 39 members
... dedicated to expanding access to technology in Ohio's low-income communities. ... Supports the efforts of centers that provide free public access to computers and the Internet for members of their communities.







Community Technology Center Network (CTCNet)
· Founded 1990
· 450+ members





... provide opportunities whereby people of all ages who typically lack access to computers and related technologies can learn to use these technologies in an environment that encourages exploration and discovery and, through this experience, develop personal skills and self-confidence. ... offers resources ... [to] facilitate telecommunications, print, and in-person linkages enabling members to benefit from shared experience and expertise. ... a leading advocate of equitable access to computers and related technologies; it will invite, initiate, and actively encourage partnerships and collaborations with other individuals and organizations that offer resources in support of its mission; and it will strive, in every arena, to bring about universal technological enfranchisement.

The actual development of public computing labs far exceeds the membership of the various associations. Preliminary results of a census of public computing in Toledo indicate numbers exceeding 120 sites, and generally for every competitive funding opportunity applicants far outnumber grant recipients.(7)

Theoretical framework

Our general research focus is on community technology centers in urban poor communities, especially communities of color. Our specific research question for this paper is this: How does social capital structure power in a community technology center (CTC) and influence its programs and effectiveness for local residents? (Social capital, as we shall discuss below, describes the social relationships, expectations, obligations, and norms that facilitate productive human activity.)

Historical context

This research question is anchored in theoretical concerns about how the organization of society establishes the context for and conditions the sustainability of the African American freedom struggle. We are interested in how public computing can play a role in this freedom struggle. This struggle has been the theme of the Black experience, involving the dialectical interplay of social forces internal and external to the Black community. This dialectic is sometimes hidden under the ideological banner of nationalism versus integrationism, but the objective dynamic is that all organizations and movements of the Black freedom struggle use resources from both internal and external sources, as well as face obstacles from both as well. The success of an organization or movement depends on its resources being more powerful than the obstacles it faces.

Thus the two concepts of community and power are the main foci of the scientific literature that sets the context for our research question. Citing this literature, we formulate a theoretical framework for the case study and provide the basis for interpretation of our results.

The African American community is rooted in a history of struggle. (8) It came into being as the result of the global expansion of capitalism by means of four centuries of the slave trade. It has experienced three fundamental historical stages: slavery, tenancy, and industry. Each of these stages has ended and transitioned into the next based on disruptive processes: the Atlantic slave trade, the emancipation process from slavery, and the mass migration from the rural agricultural south to the urban industrial north. Beginning in the 1970's, another disruptive transition became apparent, as suggested by the new concepts used to describe the crisis: unemployment became structural and permanent unemployment, homelessness emerged, stagflation, etc. The economic expansion and political expansion of democratic inclusion that lasted from World War II through the 1960's was ended and a reversal began.

Table 2. Structural Parameters for Black Middle Class Advancement, 1950-1990

In his study of the Black middle class, Landry suggests a conceptual map of decades (table 2). (9) The 1950s was a decade of expanding economics but an absence of reform politics. The 1960s ushered in reform politics on top of economic expansion, and the Black middle class grew and advanced. In the 1970s, reform politics continued but the economy stalled; the Black middle class held steady. The 1980s, with neither an expanding economy nor reform politics, was another decade of relative incremental growth of the Black middle class. This meant that the 1960s saw an unprecedented and short-lived growth of the Black middle class.

Community Context

The 1970s and 1980s also produced unprecedented poverty in the inner cities of the United States. Wilson advances three concepts that sum up changes in the social organization of Black community life during this time: social buffer, social isolation and concentration effect. (10) These concepts capture the crisis facing Black people being marginalized through the birth process of the information society. Wilson states his argument:

“I believe that the exodus of middle- and working-class families from many ghetto neighborhoods removes an important "social buffer" that could deflect the full impact of the kind of prolonged and increasing joblessness that plagued inner-city neighborhoods in the 1970's and early 1980s. ... Thus, in a neighborhood with a paucity of regularly employed families and with the overwhelming majority of families having spells of long-term joblessness, people experience a social isolation that excludes them from the job network system that permeates other neighborhoods. ... The social transformation of the inner city has resulted in a disproportionate concentration of the most disadvantaged segments of the urban Black population, creating a social milieu significantly different from the environment that existed in these communities several decades ago.” (11)

As a result, the last quarter of the 20th century gave rise to a new Black middle class and a new-impoverished class.

The old Black middle class contained entrepreneurs, service professionals, and farmers. The new Black middle class has almost no farmers, and the service professionals have become overwhelmingly employed by the state. Over 70% of Black women with college degrees and 50% of Black men with college degree work for government. (12) This process started during Reconstruction after the Civil War, when government employment was the main avenue open to Black upward social mobility. It continues today as affirmative action applies only to employment in the state and in those private firms with government contracts.

While charting the main feature of what he calls the "network society," Castells analyses unprecedented urban poverty on a global scale. He argues that the new impoverishment and social exclusion is a systemic feature of this period.

This widespread, multiform process of social exclusion leads to the constitution of what I call, taking the liberty of a cosmic metaphor, the black information holes of informational capitalism. ... Social exclusion is often expressed in spatial terms. The territorial confinement of systemically worthless populations, disconnected from networks of valuable functions and people, is indeed a major characteristic of the spatial logic of the network society. (13)

Elsewhere, applying this analysis to the United States, he describes the informational city as a dual city. By dual city, I understand an urban system socially and spatially polarized between high value-making groups and functions on the one hand and devalued social groups and downgraded spaces on the other hand. ... The power of new information technologies, however, enhances and deepens features present in the social structure and in power relationships. (14)

In this context we apply the concept of social capital to the inner city African American community. (15) Social capital, contrasted with physical capital (e.g. machines) and human capital (e.g. education), describes the social relationships, expectations, obligations, and norms that facilitate productive human activity. (16) Putnam measured U.S. social capital over the 20th century.

Collecting longitudinal data on American participation in all sorts of organized groups, he found that since roughly 1960 there has been an across the board decline in social capital. His thematic metaphor is that people used to bowl in organized leagues, and now are "bowling alone."

Putnam makes a distinction between bonding social capital, relationships within a group, and bridging social capital, relationships that link a group with others. These two types of social capital together make up the social capital of any given social group.

Bonding social capital is good for undergirding specific reciprocity and mobilizing solidarity. Dense networks in ethnic enclaves, for example, provide crucial social and psychological support for less fortunate members of the community. ... Bridging networks, by contrast, are better for linkage to external assets and for information diffusion. ... Moreover bridging social capital can generate broader identities and reciprocity, whereas bonding social capital bolsters our narrower selves. (17) The distinction between bridging and bonding social capital plays a particular role when a community lacks key resources, for instance, money.

[A]mong the disadvantaged, "bridging" social capital may be the more lucrative form. All told, people in economically disadvantaged areas appear to suffer doubly. They lack the material resources to get ahead, and they lack the social resources that might enable them to amass these material resources. (18)


The concept of the public sphere has been debated since its historical exegesis from European intellectual history by Habermas. (19) The pubic sphere is a social ecology for relevant discourse that shapes policy, public opinion, and the dominant intellectual themes of an era.

Dawson critiques Habermas in such a way that we can connect Putnam to our focus on the dual city. (20) Habermas concludes that the public sphere of capitalist society is a bourgeois phenomenon, but Dawson utilizes a concept from feminist theory to argue that the Black community has always had a "subaltern counterpublic" as the social basis for resistance.

An independent Black press, the production and circulation of socially and politically sharp popular music and the Black church have provided institutional bases for the Black counterpublic since the Civil War. (21)

After articulating an analysis of the same economic transformation discussed by Landry, Wilson, and Castells, Dawson states:
“[T]he ideological and political restructuring that accompanied this transformation was decisively accomplished in the 1980s by a number of extraordinary conservative regimes including those of Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and Ronald Reagan.” (22)

He then asks what continues to be a relevant research question in and after the same period discussed by Landry, Castells, and Wilson:

“The question before us becomes, what is the basis in the 1990s for restructuring an oppositional subaltern public in the aftermath of a rightist backlash of historic proportions. “(23)

In sum, our approach to community examines the dual city (Castells) for social capital (Putnam) in the socially isolated Black inner city (Wilson) to produce a Black counterpublic sphere (Dawson) by means of a community technology center.

Social Movements

Morris analyses the institutions that the Black counterpublic relied on during the civil rights movement in a case study of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott movement in the 1950's led by Martin Luther King. (24) He employs an "indigenous perspective" use of resource mobilization theory to define the Black movement:

Resource mobilization theory emphasizes the resources necessary for the initiation and development of movements. They include formal and informal organizations, leaders, money, people, and communication networks. (25)

Landry describes how the Montgomery movement was led by a young middle class minister, Martin Luther King Jr., but was sustained by poor Blacks of the city, domestics, garbage collectors, and unskilled laborers as well as Blacks of other classes. (26)

Landry's data on this broad-based mobilization supports Morris in arguing the primacy of internal resources.

Morris anticipated Putnam's distinction between bonding and bridging social capital.
The basic resources enabling a dominated group to engage in sustained protest are well developed internal social institutions and organizations that provide the community with encompassing communication networks, organized groups, experienced leaders, and social resources, including money, labor, charisma, that can be mobilized to attain collective goals. ... The significance of outside resources, in this view, lies in the help they can give in sustaining movements. However, our evidence suggests that they are not a causal determinant. (27)


Jordan advances the notion of cyberpower and identifies three interrelated regions of cyberpower, "the individual, the social, and the imaginary." (28) Cyberpower—the effect of online activity on power—can be measured and mapped. We use three definitions of these types of cyberpower:

  • individual: gaining skills and connections for oneself

  • social: gaining skills and connections for a group

  • imaginary or as we renamed it, ideological: gaining skills and making connections in order to advance the imaginary: a vision, a movement, an ideological purpose.

Jim Walch argues for a research agenda in this area:

"A new, 'wired' political community is emerging, a net-polis. The contours and nature of this political community are only in formation, nebulous. The task of research is to study what is happening, why, and what possible patterns might emerge. A major concern—for politicians, scholars and citizens—is maintaining democratic values in cyberspace: equal access, responsibility, representativity, public control and accountability". (29) More >>
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