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The Internet is Not Built for the Underclass, Yet

This may come as a surprise for you, but the internet isn’t built for the underclass. For example, let’s say you’re homeless and hungry and try to use Google to search for ‘free food {insert current location here}’. Most of it is clickbait and only generates an address of a location and a phone number of a place that might have food, sometimes. So, if you’re hungry and have no food, you are out of luck. Google doesn’t know.

However, if you search for a restaurant or ‘good food {insert current location here}, then you easily see a variety of ranked restaurants and it takes one click to get to their menu and reviews of it. Would you go to a restaurant without looking at the menu or reading reviews on it? That’s what the underclass are expected to do: unconditionally trust institutions such as soup kitchens, shelters, etc. and rely solely on old school word of mouth networks.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are unique challenges regarding how to capture the reviews of the services that impoverished people utilize or making the Internet accessible. For example, literacy is an issue, so perhaps audio transcription is a preferred method of capturing reviews for them. Time is also a consideration. The average working impoverished person may not have time to review their services or see the value in doing so for others. Even considering these issues means that you need to have empathy for the end user who is different from the average middle- or upper-class user.

In the US, this boils down to a lack of attention on the unexotic underclass from tech startups (MIT Entrepreneurship Review 2013). There is funding for dating apps, meditation apps, alcohol and food delivery, not for infrastructure for improving discoverability of or collection of data on poverty-alleviating services. In fact, this problem is overlooked or considered a non-problem, but could save days and weeks of searching for resources of individuals time (read: federal, state, city dollars), if designed in a trauma-informed, user-centered lens for the underclass.

As it is now, there are rarely reviews of services or actionable information on how to access them geared towards those in poverty. Oftentimes, there are reviews by case workers, service providers, volunteers, or executive directors of their institutions, but not of the end user, the impoverished person, of their services. One can see this phenomenon is rampant on, for example. Would you trust those employed by the restaurant to really tell you how the food is? Honestly I wouldn’t either, yet that’s exactly what we ask the underclass to do? Yet, there aren’t critics of social services the same way there is a Zagat food critic. Why? Without digital tools that provide actionable information around alleviating poverty, we exclude tech savvy individuals and widen the digital divide between rich and poor.

There is no lack of technology being used at poor people to surveil and punish, rather there is a lack of usable tech that facilitates using services that supposedly empower them in the same way you would use Google. According to Virginia Eubanks, in “Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor” pp. 8:

“Data-based systems were ubiquitous in [poor people’s] lives, especially in the low-wage workplace, the criminal justice system, and the public assistance system. I did find many trends that were troubling, even in the early 2000s: high-tech economic development was increasing economic inequality in my hometown, intensive electronic surveillance was being integrated into public housing and benefit programs, and policy-makers were actively ignoring the needs and insights of poor and working people.”

The people who need to build these tools are the very people who Silicon Valley traditionally does not fund or perhaps see as a problem (See “It’s About Damn Time” by Arlan Hamilton for stats on diversity in Silicon Valley), but impoverished people deserve dignity in their digital lives as well as public lives. Rather than surveilling and punishing, as traditional social services are known to do (see “Violent History of Benevolence” by A.J. Withers and Chris Chapman (Both authors have PhDs in Social Work) for more on the history of social working in moral economies), digital tools could empower and inspire growth and investment into community-based solutions.

There are marvelous technology projects working on combating tech’s negative effects on poor people and empowering communities. For example, the Benefits Tech Advocacy Hub is working to help individuals fight back against unjust cuts to their benefits. Oftentimes though, these web2 tech solutions are reactionary to tech’s negative use against impoverished people, not empowering self-efficacy of impoverished people. On the other hand, there are an increasing number of universal basic income projects in web3 such as that can provide more income to poor people around the world and do it with dignity, empowering people to make their own choices to meet their own needs.

Web3 makes community ownership require less trust with an immutable digital ledger of transactions and wallets called multi-sigs that require multiple signatures before each transaction of an asset from that wallet. There are impactDAOs that use multi-sigs to provide the opportunity to organically grow grassroots networks and to allocate capital to different initiatives for the impactDAO community members in real life. For example, PactDAO, currently stewarded by on Breadchain provides mutual aid in a hyperlocal community setting of New York City.

Although this is a new use of tech, the bottom line is that there is hope to have tech positively impact impoverished communities and individuals. While the Internet may not be currently built for the underclass, I strongly encourage tech startup founders to look for underclass problems to solve. There are far more impoverished people than there are middle- or upper-class users. Pay attention to those who are different from you and their struggles and/or if you are one of the underclass, read up on startup life and VC deals. Hone your skills and pitch your idea.

It’s never too late to change the course of history.

Published Oct 3, 2022

security researcher, etc.