Some Thoughts on the Treatment of Digital Minorities

April 25, 2005

If you wanted to document all instances of unfair treatment of minorities in this world, you'd better be prepared to write a multi-volume book. One of the closing chapters in your multi-volume book would cover the treatment of digital minorities.

What's a digital minority? It's any person who chooses to use a non-mainstream computer operating system. People choose operating systems for many different reasons. It's a personal choice. Sometimes an intensely personal choice.

I first started thinking about this topic a few years ago when a friend with learning disabilities described the first time he used a Macintosh computer, back in 1985. "The moment I turned it on, I knew his computer had the ability to work fluidly with my mind. Every other computer I had tried had been immensely frustrating. This one was different."

This person's Macintosh computer changed his life in immeasurable ways, leading him to a career as a professor of 3D animation at a prestigious college in Washington DC, among other things. To say that this person "prefers" to use a Mac is about the same as saying a Catholic prefers to be Catholic, a Muslim prefers to be a Muslim, a Jew prefers to be a Jew.

I expanded my understanding further about digital minorities when I heard Richard Stallman, a MacArthur Award winner, speak about the rights of sofware users at the Young Hackers and Scholars Libre User Group last year at Yorktown High School, in Arlington, Virginia, a suburb of Washington DC. Richard Stallman, the creator of the free software movement, came to speak to this small group of GNU/Linux enthusiasts. He looked a little tired standing on stage. Why? The previous day he had been in Vietnam talking about free software.

So I was sitting in a small high school auditorium trying to imagine why Richard Smallman would come to talk to our small group. After listening to him that evening, I understood that it was the passion of his convictions that fueled his energy to talk about his ideas on opposite sides of the globe on consecutive days. And I wouldn't be surprised if works himself to exhaustion as a matter of course. The talk he gave was thought provoking and his ideas have been swirling in my mind since. I don't agree with everything he has to say, but his viewpoints are often compelling. I do not understand enough about this subject and the only way I can think more clearly about it is to do a lot of listening.

You might be wondering, what happens to you when you're a digital minority? Well, when you go to use a service that your bank offers online, you might encounter a message saying this service is not available for your computer. Banks have no legal obligation to provide equal services to different computer users, and should they choose to not provide the service for your computer operating system, you have little recourse but to choose another bank. Now it's possible that the other bank is across town and you don't own a car. And maybe the only time you can get to this other bank is on Saturdays, which is your scheduled time to take your child for dialysis treatment. So one inconvenience compounds to another.

Being a digital minority also means when you call technical support at a company, you might find you spend 10 to 20 minutes talking with a technical support person who didn't realize their suggested action were for a different computer operating system. This happens a lot to the elderly. Happened to my mom last week.

When you're a digital minority it's impossible to fight all instances of unfair treatment, so you learn to get along as best you can, speaking up only when the degree of unfairness is so acute you can't possibly live with it.

Being a digital minority means waiting a few extra months for software to be developed for your operating system. Some software that you might need may never be developed for your operating system. The market isn't big enough for the software publisher to invest in creating the software for your operating system. You don't like it? Tough.

As with the treatment of any minority, indignity piles up upon indignity. And the patient, polite person you used to be comes to be less patient and less polite. There are no laws to protect you as a digital minority. The very concept of digital minority has barely entered our language.

So you get dumped on, and if you have the gall to complain about it, you're apt to get characterized a whiner. "I never knew you felt so deeply about that," is what you'll hear time and again. Funny how people seldom say that about your religious beliefs.

When we make choices in our life, we often do so for a reason. If a person is a digital minority, using an operating system that is not mainstream, they may be doing so for many different reasons. They are probably not a digital minority for no reason. Why put up with all those inconveniences and mistreatment for no reason?

The topic of digital minorities blasted back onto the scene in February, 2005, when the Fairfax County Public Libraries, a large library system in the suburbs of Washington DC, started offering audio books downloads in Windows Media file format. These audio books can not be heard on Macintosh computers, GNU/Linux computers or iPods. Taxpayer dollars are being spent on these audio books, accessible to some computer users, but inaccessible to others. In their enthusiam to provide this new service, the Fairfax County Public Libraries did not stop to think thru the ways in which their actions would be discriminatory. A more thoughtful library system might have sought input from Macintosh and GNU/Linux users about how they would feel if such a service were offered. No such consultation occurred. How do I know? Because I'm involved as a leader in both Macintosh computer clubs in the Washington DC-area and I keep my ear tuned to the goings-on at GNU/Linux user groups in the area.

When I think about what happened in the Fairfax County Public Libraries, what I see is a failure of process. Fairness and process are inextricably connected. When you have a poor process, or no process, fairness suffers.

Anyone in a public service leadership position making decisions that would exclude a group of people is obligated to at least consult the potentially excluded group on how they would feel about being excluded. When creating public policy, you check in with those potentially affected by the policy.

Or you ignore them during the process of creating the policy, and ignore them some more after the policy has been implemented.

For a catalog of some of the ways that Macintosh users have been marginalized see the Macintouch web site. If you are interested in knowing the ways GNU/Linux users have been marganizalized, ask someone who uses GNU/Linux and they'll tell you. The web site is a place where you can learn more about the viewpoint of Linux users.

Want to experience the spirit of GNU/Linux users teaching each other things? Visit a meeting of a GNU/Linux user group (club) in your area.

Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig often writes thoughtfully on his blog and in his books about the intersection of technology and public policy -- as does John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

I stay informed about things I need to know via the work of the organization named Public Knowledge. I also follow the group blog on the Digital Divide Network to hear input and ideas from people working in the field of technology acces and the digital divide. Anyone can blog on the Digital Divide Network web site. Setting up an account on the site is free. You activate your blog via the Profile section of the web site, after creating an account.

There is much work to be done to build a more inclusive society. The time to be doing this is sooner rather than later. We've missed too many opportunities already. See you there.

Phil Shapiro
April, 2005
(The author is a law school graduate of a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). A minority within the student body at that college, he experienced a strong degree of inclusion from his fellow students and professors.)

Audio Book Issue in the Fairfax County Public Libraries (April 23, 2005)


Trying to Update the Content of this Site from a Public Library Computer (Friday, April 29, 2005)

Visually Impaired Users within the Excluded Class (Friday, April 29, 2005)