Featured Research: California Connects

Back to ICSI Gazette, Spring 2014

A 63-year-old woman interviewed by artificial intelligence researcher Blanca Gordo described her confusion about and frustration with the technology at a new job as digital dissonance: “Things are changing so much in the digital world, using the computer and the Internet… it’s assumed that you know about this, that you know about all of these new applications that are out there, and you don’t know…. I did my best to keep up but I couldn’t keep up.”

Artificial intelligence researcher Blanca Gordo
Blanca Gordo

Gordo calls that digital destitution – a state of disconnection from economic, social, cultural, and institutional processes that depend on broadband technology. She’s leading an evaluation of California Connects, a federally funded project that attempted to spread broadband adoption among California residents, especially those who are under-served and disconnected.

In the 1990s, which saw the dotcom boom and the increasing use of computers in everyday and business life, the Clinton administration initiated projects to study the digital divide and to expand connection. In addition to commissioning studies and surveys of technology adoption, the administration founded the Technology Opportunities Program as part of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA, of the U.S. Department of Commerce. The program, which operated from 1994 to 2004, provided funds to governments, businesses, schools, libraries, community based organizations, nonprofits, and medical centers to improve their technological capability – one grant, for example, funded broadband video conferencing between tribal hospitals and clinics to provide better services in remote areas.

In the new millennium, the Bush administration focused less on both studying digital connection and solving the problem of disconnectedness. “There’s only a problem if you have data to prove it,” says Gordo.

With the Obama administration, the federal government began again to address inequality of access to technology. Several national studies showed that those unconnected to the Internet tend to be poor, ethnic, non-citizens, and in their old age – in other words, “the demarcations follow the same trajectory as other inequalities,” Gordo says.

In addition, digital destitution has what Gordo calls a “multiplier effect”: if you don’t have the money or know how to connect, you miss out on a vast range of ways that the Internet saves money and helps you make money. “You take longer to do things with less quality,” she said. Getting a job, communicating with a child’s teacher, finding medical services – all are more difficult the more you are disconnected. “We can’t look at technology as a separate institution,” she said. “It’s embedded.”

How do you teach technology?

One challenge that California Connects faced, Gordo says, is that “there is no pedagogy for digital functioning. This is why I’m interested in building a language to teach technology.”

In addition to California Connects, Gordo works with the Teaching Privacy team, a cross-disciplinary group of computer scientists, educators, and social scientists at ICSI and UC Berkeley that is building teaching materials and hands-on exercises to help Internet users, especially younger students, understand what happens to personal information online.

The team’s work is funded by the National Science Foundation through the Geo-Tube project, which seeks to show how it is possible to aggregate public and seemingly innocuous information from different media and Web sites to attack users’ privacy.

This fall, Teaching Privacy released the Ready or Not? app, which extracts publicly available GPS data from Twitter and Instagram posts to create a map of where the users are posting from and when they are posting there. Strangers could take advantage of this information to find users in the physical world.

The app accompanies a Web site designed by the team that seeks to spread awareness among users, particularly younger ones, about what communicating over the Web really means - who has access to what personal information and how providing that information could be harmful. The site explores ten principles for social media privacy by explaining what happens to personal information when it goes online, how it might be used to negatively affect users, and how they can defend their privacy by limiting what they share. The site also provides real-life examples of online privacy attacks. The site is at

In 2009, Congress passed, and President Obama signed, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which, among other things, allocated funds to the NTIA. One of the programs established was the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), which has three components, all of which aim to expand access to broadband services around the country. Two components, making up the lion’s share of the allocated funds, are devoted to building infrastructure for broadband Internet connection. Another, Sustainable Broadband Adoption (SBA), funded 44 projects around the country to increase usage and adoption.

California Connects is one of those SBA projects, administered by the Foundation for California Community Colleges (FCCC). The evaluation is one of a handful of SBA grant  evaluations nationwide.  The California Connects evaluation team comprises members with backgrounds in linguistics, political philosophy, anthropology, psychology, ethnic studies, and sociology; Gordo herself holds a PhD in city and regional planning from UC Berkeley.

The project comprises three main components. In one, the FCCC distributed laptops and provided technology support to California community college students within Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA), a national program that helps disadvantaged students succeed in math and science. In exchange, the students were expected to train their families and communities in how to interact with the Web.

In another component, the FCCC collaborated with the Great Valley Center to conduct digital literacy training to residents of 18 counties in the Central Valley of California, which extends from Redding in the north to Bakersfield in the south and includes some of the highest rates of disconnectedness in the state (Gordo’s team estimates that 16 of the 18 counties have a higher rate of households without broadband subscriptions than the state as a whole).

The project also funded the building of an online technology teaching tool, Living with Technology, built by American River College.

The evaluation gave Gordo the opportunity to ground and expand theoretical claims about expanding broadband adoption – in particular, how it can be done effectively and why it should be.

It also highlighted the tensions in efforts to address digital destitution. For one thing, according to Gordo, much of the data on destitution is unhelpful. She points to recent results from the American Community Survey, which asked respondents without Internet why they didn’t have it. The number one answer was that they simply ‘don’t need it and not interested.’ But, Gordo says, this is misleading: “I don’t need or want it” can be a proxy for “I don’t understand it,” an option that was not provided for the survey. “One thing that inhibits adoption is the embodied myth that I can’t,” Gordo said. “People have developed shame over the recognition that they don’t understand the Internet.”

The lack of understanding requires a new user to enter a learning curve – one that becomes more and more difficult as time goes on, technical skills build on previous skills, and norms evolve through online social activity. As Gordo writes in the evaluation, “In terms of both technical skills and online social norms, new learners today simply have much more to learn than did new learners who began learning when Internet technology first started to be used broadly.”

Seen purely in the light of its quantitative outcomes, California Connects was not successful. The project’s goal was to train 61,120 people in digital literacy; a little more than 21,000 are recorded as having participated. This includes 5,786 MESA students who received laptops, 11,877 family and community members trained by the students, 2,649 participants in the Great Valley Center trainings, and 961 users in the U.S. who created accounts for the Living With Technology Web site. But these numbers, low relative to the project’s ambitious goals, obscure the qualitative success of the ambitious project.

Evaluating California Connects required the team to consider the context, national development plans, systems change and individual circumstances: what role does the Internet play in the everyday life of a new user? Does she connect to the Internet for work? What family, social, and economic structures support or impede use of technology?

In addition, traditional measures of success – such as whether the program prepared participants for skilled jobs or whether it increased the number of broadband subscriptions – ignore the magnitude of the knowledge gap as well as individual users’ circumstances. With those criteria, “if you don’t get jobs, the project’s a failure,” says Gordo. “It may be that it was successful – just not in that way.”

“Things are changing so much in the digital world, using the computer and the Internet… it’s assumed that you know about this, that you know about all of these new applications that are out there, and you don’t know"

California Connects’ stated goal is to promote digital literacy, an unhelpful term, according to Gordo. “Digital literacy invokes debates that are unhelpful,” she said. “There’s no standard definition, and it confuses the conversation.”

This is part of a debate about the meaning of the “digital divide” – does it mean the division between those who own computers and those who don’t, or between those who are able to function online and those who aren’t?

She said an important goal is “teaching people to function in civil society.” She calls this digital functioning: a continuous learning process that relies on understanding an old technology in order to develop an understanding of new technology. In other words, she said, “You have to learn to learn.”

Despite the inadequacy of its numerical outcomes, California Connects helped new users become comfortable with the Internet, use it for specific benefits, and, more importantly, begin to understand it dynamically. Of the participants in the Great Valley Center trainings, Gordo said, “People left thinking they could continuously learn.”

Gordo says the project was helpful in reaching the population that the policy prescribed. “They truly were underserved. The question was, if you build it, will they come?” she said. “It was built for them. They came.”

But the program needs more time, she said, as well as a recognition that learning is a social and continuous process. “The problem is more profound than anyone thought,” she said. “It was a tall order.” The outcome of the program also points out a need for collaboration among people with different backgrounds. “The reason we haven’t been able to predict some of these issues is that we didn’t collaborate,” she said.

More about the California Connects evaluation and digital destitution is available at www.digitalequality.net.