Monday, July 1, 2013

Truth and Fiction - Can Technology Help First Americans Break Free from Stereotype and be Heard? - Lisa Cooper

 
In America today, the general imagery and perception of the Native American has changed very little. In a recent TED talk, Nancy Marie Mithlo drew our attention to the fact that this fictitious imagery of the Native American still has a firm hold on American perceptions. She labeled these perceptions the ‘Americana Indian’, to distinguish between these false images and portrayals and the reality of the modern day Native American. Such perceptions undoubted continue to cause problems for the community, but in recent years, with the advent and ease of access to the internet and mobile communications, could embracing the use of technology play a fundamental part in helping Native American communities join their voices and be heard, and thus go some way towards breaking down and laying to rest such archaic and stereotypical images from the American psyche?

Current Trends in American Technology Use
In general, technology use around the world has vastly increased in the last few years or so, and that trend is set to continue, especially in the US. With the recent advent of mobile tablets and ipads, there are predictions that these devices in particular will be increasing in use, with around 44% of homes owning a tablet device of some description currently. This has increased by about 1% in two years. Further more, consumers in America are becoming more tech savvy, and with a number of new devices and upcoming tech having being showcased earlier this year in Las Vegas, the market looks to be going from strength to strength. This is all well and good, but how do Native Americans fit into this picture? There is no doubt of the benefits being able to access mobile technology and the internet can have when it comes to organization and communication between communities, but there are still a number of barriers in the way for First Americans, especially those in the more rural areas of the country or on reservations.

The Barriers to Access
In 2009, it was estimated that around 39% of rural or reservation based Native Americans had access to a telephone line, compared with 94% in urban areas. A detailed paper on the divide in technology and access to it studies this issue more closely, and also that of maintaining the preservation of Native American culture and lands while attempting to bridge this divide. Infrastructure then, is one problem. Another is financial. Many Native American communities are on or below the poverty line. This makes saving and meeting everyday needs difficult enough - the added cost of a tablet or smartphone is likely to be well out of reach for many. Most tablets, for example retail at around the $200 mark for the cheaper varieties. Supposing this is affordable, there are still additional services that are often necessary for such devices, such as financial protection in the event of theft or damage, and so on. That said, the prices of these devices will steadily drop as newer models are released, meaning that the playing field will be leveled somewhat as technology continues to develop.

Accessibility for the Future?
Interestingly, back in 1994, Congress commissioned a study on the use of technology by Native Americans, and how this could impact the strength and reach of communities and activists. The study found that many official Native American bodies and communities were quick to embrace the internet especially, along with mobile communications as a whole, and the proposed measures to enable this empowerment to continue. Many communities are still waiting for this empowerment. The main problem is still the disparity in service for native Americans, especially broadband services. A study from 2009 shows there is a huge gap in access for many communities, especially those on reservations. As mentioned, this is in part due to logistics of phone lines, but also the cost. Again, for many poorer communities, this will be a luxury that is simply not attainable. The internet has shown that time and time again voices can be heard around the world and draw attention to injustice or issues that communities face. Provided Native American communities can find ways to overcome the current obstacles placed in front of them when it comes to technology access, then more attention can be drawn to these problems. That said, and perhaps ironically, more widespread access may be required to draw further attention to the eligibility problem in the first place. Either way, technology can only be of benefit to Native American communities in the long run, and that's what makes access to it so fundamental.