The Promise of Access: Technology, Inequality, and the Political Economy of Hope

by Daniel Greene, The MIT Press 2021, 272 pp.  
Paperback $30.00, ISBN: 9780262542333.

The Promise of Access

How are problems of poverty transmuted into problems of technology? How do we come to naturalize connections between technological advancement and greater societal equity? These are questions are at the heart of The Promise of Access: Technology, Inequality, and the Political Economy of Hope by Daniel Greene. Drawing on multi-year fieldwork in and around the District of Columbia (DC) Metro area, Greene takes a fresh, hard look at how poverty-reducing policies in the US are shaped by ideas around technological access and use—and how those policies and ideas in turn shape the everyday, lived experience of techno-solutionism. Here, technological access is a material concern, which we can see across vignettes featuring Greene’s informants: waiting in line to use a computer at a public library or scoping out free WiFi signal at a Metro station. Access goes beyond hardware, beyond fingers on keys or bits across network waves. Access is also about the various skills and literacies needed to meaningfully engage in the rapidly-changing digital world. In the simple arithmetic of techno-solutionism, tools + skills = success. Greene deftly reveals, however, the complexity lurking beneath this formula.  

Greene identifies the “access doctrine” as a central concept from which many poverty-reducing policies flow: “The access doctrine decrees that the problem of poverty can be solved through the provision of new technologies and technical skills, giving those left out of the information economy the chance to catch up and compete” (5). Greene doesn’t turn to a singular policy that reifies the access doctrine, but to many, helping the reader connect the dots by providing a thorough, yet readable review of key neoliberal policy moves throughout the last quarter of the 20th century and into the 21st. Influenced by the PC explosion and the rapid commercialization of the World Wide Web, the access doctrine “emerged from 1990s debates over the problem of persistent poverty and a globalizing deindustrializing US economy whose more profitable frontiers seemed to be based in using and producing information and communication technologies” (5).  Many of these 1990s and early 2000s campaigns focused on eliminating the “digital divide,” with access to the Internet and PC skills training chief concerns. Now, popular policy discourse tends to focus on “digital inclusion” vis-à-vis cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). But while the technical specifics may change, the access doctrine’s underlying, neoliberal force remains: access to the right tools and right skills is the solution to poverty. This solution is the promise that access makes to you, the access doctrine tells us, and it’s your responsibility to take advantage of it. 

But how does the access doctrine become a part of everyday, common sense? How do we come to see individual tools and skills as answers for macro-level inequities? Greene provides us with conceptual vocabulary to trace how the access doctrine is naturalized. Two key concepts are “the pivot” and “bootstrapping.”  

The pivot is startup lingo for a “gut-check moment for a company, where survival depends on fundamentally reorienting how you do business, with whom, and why” (60). With its origins in Lean and Agile software development methodologies, the pivot is often used by tech startups as they iteratively shape their services and offerings to cater to funding opportunities and market factors. A spirit of entrepreneurialism drives the pivot, which requires a comfort with (and even an appetite for) taking action to make change in the face of uncertainty. Add an entirely new feature to your app? Go after a different market segment? These are the kinds of pivots tech startups might attempt. 

But pivots do not only manifest in the day-to-day doings of tech startups. Greene also finds these kinds of fundamental reorientations in other institutions too, from his fieldwork in public libraries and charter schools. Greene calls these types of practices “bootstrapping,” which is “a series of stark organizational reforms that reorient the institution around the idea that poverty can be overcome with the right tools and the right skills.” (85). The Promise of Access is empirically rich, bringing to life the messy ambitions and ambivalences of its many informants. Across various ethnographic scenes, Greene demonstrates how a “constant process of organizational change” (144) is inherent to the access doctrine. It is not hard to see how a library’s pivot around a “Fab Lab” makerspace (complete with a 3D printer and laser cutter) raises questions about the library’s mission and purpose. Is a makerspace helping prepare patrons for jobs? What about patrons who use public computers for activities other than job seeking? What if patrons use public computers for fun, play, leisure, or even viewing pornography? As the book demonstrates, if you ask two different library staff, you will get two different opinions, highlighting how organizational change creates various kinds of personal and professional torques. We learn of similar tensions in Greene’s ethnographic accounts of a charter school using technology to foster a “high performance academic culture” and ensure all its students are accepted to the college of their choice. The “right” kind of technology use comes up here too, with teachers frustrated over teenagers’ technology use (i.e., using tech for social media or to watch videos, rather than solely for school purposes).  

How does policing a teenager’s technology use relate to the problem of poverty? The mastery of this ethnographic project is that it so skillfully tells a multi-scalar tale. In The Promise of Access, Greene artfully weaves together phenomena happening at the macro-level of policy, the meso-level of institutions/organizations, and the micro-level of everyday practice. By connecting the everyday, lived experience of techno-solutionism – the experiences of the students at the charter school, for example, and the teachers there – with broader, political forces, Greene shows how the deceptive simplicity of the access doctrine takes hold and is continually reproduced in everyday life.

Christine T. Wolf, Thomson Reuters Corporation