In 2013, a series of posters started appearing across Washington, DC, that declared, “The Internet: Your Future Depends on It,” next to a photo of a Black Washingtonian. “Sean earned an advanced certification in six months. Now he upgrades computer systems for the US Small Business Administration. He uses technology to help people start businesses. So can you.” The people in the posters looked ahead to their new future, smiling. “Fabiane learned Microsoft Office in eight weeks and used her new skills to write, design, and publish her first book. She’s using technology to pursue her dreams. So can you.”
The posters told stories about using digital training resources provided by the DC municipal government to get to such futures. New skills and tools would lead to better jobs, ones in which you don’t work with your hands. But it was not just a matter of bringing single individuals across a digital divide, a gap between those who had internet access and the skills to use it and those who didn’t. The dream was bigger: by changing their tools and skills, people could drive the economic growth of the city and change the communities in which they lived. “Marcus earned three computer certifications in less than a year. Now he works as a computer technician with the DC government. He uses technology to improve his city.”
Curiously, the internet itself wasn’t mentioned in these testimonies. No one was designing websites or setting up e-commerce portals. The internet in “The Internet: Your Future Depends on It” was not a specific tool, but a symbol of economic progress—the promised land people would reach with the right equipment and the right training.
There is a familiar, attractive story here: get online, learn to code, secure your future. Both liberal and conservative politicians have repeated that story for decades, updating it for the technology of the day, in an attempt to persuade the public that their individual and collective economic futures depend on their access to the right skills and tools. The narrative is so pervasive that it has become political common sense.
I call that political common sense the “access doctrine.” 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.
Like other forms of political common sense, the access doctrine mixes factual claims with ideological ones. It is clear, for example, that finding a job without an internet connection and a PC is difficult—just try filling out an application to work for CVS, let alone using USAJobs, on your phone. It is less clear that there are plenty of good tech jobs out there, just not enough coders to fill them. Economic reality is more complicated than political slogans might admit. Getting online and learning to code won’t change the rest of the labor market by itself.
What’s more, the access doctrine implies a certain calculus for social worth: your social value diminishes alongside your economic value. Inequality is a feature of a capitalist economy, not a bug, and the access doctrine makes this inequality sensible and navigable. It explains why there is such a gulf between rich and poor, how the poor can find security, and what help they need to get there—all without disrupting the basic shape of these unequal social relations.
Before Tomorrow Arrives
The access doctrine is part of a wider story that explains the relative poverty or economic inactivity of specific populations, regions, and countries through the skills that individual workers possess. For much of the twentieth century, especially after the economic dislocations of the 1970s, representatives of business, education, and government have warned of impending or actual skills gaps, where the education system does not provide graduates with the skills businesses need, and the more specific problem of skills shortages, where US businesses cannot find a specific kind of worker—today, generally engineers and information technology professionals.
Skill is notoriously difficult to define and measure. Nevertheless, the urgent problem of skills gaps and shortages has been given historical weight through the invocation, typically by economists, of skill-biased technological change (SBTC). Advocates for SBTC hold that the prevalence of technology—itself typically unmeasured and underdefined—increases in prevalence and complexity over time, and thus the demands for and wage returns of workers skilled in its design and use also rise over time. The vagueness of skill and technology are empirically troublesome but politically useful. A nebulous threat is always on the economic horizon, explaining that those struggling today do so because they have not sufficiently upgraded—and that they must do so before tomorrow arrives.
The skills-gap narrative shifts the responsibility for training away from business owners and toward young individuals at the beginning of their working lives, as well as toward the public institutions that train them: universities, community colleges, and local and state governments. As management researcher Peter Cappelli has shown, what little evidence we have suggests that employers today devote very little time to on-the-job training relative to the postwar “golden era” of long-term, single-firm employment.
But still, the hope survives. At the level of statecraft, placing a political priority on skills training is a positive, forward-looking way to justify cuts to unemployment insurance—because it’s unnecessary if there really are enough jobs available for the skilled—and the general shift of training burdens from firms to schools, libraries, and individuals.
The access doctrine emerged from these earlier frameworks, adding to them the new technologies and skills associated with the internet. It was first articulated in debates in the 1990s over the problem of persistent poverty in a globalizing, deindustrializing US economy whose most profitable frontier seemed to be in using and producing information and communication technologies. In the following decade, in cities such as DC, Seattle, and San Francisco, the technology sector expanded as part of a wave of post-2008 high-wage, white emigration, while Black unemployment remained persistently high, homelessness increased, and working-class wages barely budged. The access doctrine made these problems appear natural and immutable, like an earthquake, and taught individuals and organizations how to survive them.
These problems are complex, but the access doctrine continues to make sense as a simple solution. It makes it seem as though economic opportunities are available to all via the internet, and thus any individual economic struggles are just that—and never the fault of deindustrialization, capital flight, stagnant wages, or a shrunken, punitive welfare state. This is part of the neoliberal revolution, wherein American political institutions have redefined citizenship around market fitness and charged the state with either ensuring opportunities for competition and broad participation in them, or policing those who cannot or will not compete, so as to preserve the smooth functioning of markets. The threat of punishment, of course, falls most heavily on the working and workless poor, particularly Black Americans.
As the skyrocketing inequality of the information economy has become harder and harder to ignore, the access doctrine, manifested in stories like “The Internet: Your Future Depends on It,” has become more and more compelling both to individuals and to institutions. In the process of transforming the problem of poverty into a problem of technology, the access doctrine has transformed the organizations—schools, libraries, governments—addressing the problem.
Schools and libraries, threatened by fiscal austerity or accusations of obsolescence, have embraced the access doctrine as their mission in order to restore their legitimacy, secure much-needed resources, and simplify the host of social problems with which they are confronted daily. They do so because public service organizations are themselves under threat in an environment of overwhelming economic uncertainty and inequality. By turning the problem of poverty into a problem of technology, they reframe their own problems into something more manageable for their frontline staff and more legible to the politicians, donors, and others who might offer support. These institutions teach us how to survive, but their own survival hinges on reproducing the common sense of the access doctrine. In the process, places like schools and libraries begin to look more like tech startups.
I call the process of organizational restructuring prompted by the access doctrine “bootstrapping”: public service organizations are overwhelmed by the scale of the problems facing them and find their resources and legitimacy under threat, so they turn toward technology provisioning and skills-training programs because these attract economic and political support. When schools and libraries bootstrap, they are often inspired by the way technology startups pivot to new growth models. Ultimately, though, they cannot pivot like startups, because they have different goals, stakeholders, revenue streams, and responsibilities.
Because bootstrapping empowers public service organizations that manage the problem of poverty, it is a never-ending process. Any part of the organization’s identity, operations, and personnel are subject to revision. That is why libraries increasingly look like Apple stores. Or why urban charter schools promise a brighter future for working-class students of color if they just learn to code, even if they won’t receive a warm welcome for the relatively small number of jobs in software development. Bootstrapping becomes not just a series of changes, but a new institutional culture, in conflict with older public service cultures. Paradoxically, it is precisely because the access doctrine presents such an urgent problem for these organizations that they will continue with new and different experiments in technology provision or skills training—even if those experiments do not benefit poor people, or marginalize the people the organization serves. Indeed, bootstrapping regularly fails on its own terms, because the institutions it targets are not made for the task.
Still, bootstrapping institutions reproduce the access doctrine, and thus the idea of different sides of a digital divide—with one in need of the other’s help—as part of their general task of reproducing people for capitalism. It is insidious work because the ideal subject those institutions are redesigned to reproduce is an entrepreneur who has no need for schools and libraries; they can learn by themselves, work by themselves, start a tech company by themselves and weather extreme economic uncertainty by themselves.
A New Hegemonic Bloc
Most accounts of the information economy focus on changes in the mode of production—the nature of work, what commodities are produced and where. But there has been just as large a change in the mode of social reproduction, the differentiated process of making people for a particular political-economic moment.
Making the problem of poverty a problem of technology changed how we understand the entire labor market, our navigation of it, and the reward from it—for employed, unemployed, and underemployed alike. The hope that personal computing, the internet, and the skills to use them will power social mobility is the cultural glue holding a deeply unequal information economy together. In this new mode of social reproduction, no one is ever truly on the outside of the labor market—everyone is constantly searching for the skills, technologies, and opportunities that will help them move through it. This is a feature, not a bug, in neoliberal economic development.
Capital cannot make people, but its need for more and different labor power is balanced by an impulse to disinvest from the costs of social reproduction and disrupt or abandon the spaces of solidarity and community that are grown therein. The political philosopher Nancy Fraser argues that this dynamic creates a “crisis of care” in each capitalist epoch. Our current crisis is marked by the state’s retreat from the responsibilities of care and the stagnation of wages for much of the working class, leading to a “dualized organization of social reproduction, commodified for those who can pay for it, privatized for those who cannot—all glossed by the even more modern ideal of the ‘two-earner family.’”
I would add, following the radical geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore, that the state has not so much retreated from care but shifted those capacities into punishment—particularly for the working and workless poor—and that this is complemented by capital’s retreat from providing training within the firm. Capital has shifted the burden of skills training onto individuals so that they must now have all the skills necessary to succeed at jobs they do not yet have. To carry the burden of skills training, individuals take on debt, access to which is also racially differentiated, in order to pay for college or coding boot camps. If they are on the fringes of the labor market, they are forced to enter a constant cycle of job search, job applications, and skills training—the replacement of welfare with workfare. Police and prisons are tasked with handling those individuals who will not or cannot shoulder these burdens.
The ideal economic model for individuals at this juncture is the tech entrepreneur, just as the ideal model for organizations is the tech startup. The ideal entrepreneur is, as the sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom puts it, a “roaming autodidact” who seeks out the unlimited educational opportunities available on the internet. They are self-sufficient, not reliant on institutions of social reproduction. The ideal entrepreneur is a young white male who not only lacks any responsibility to care for others, but also has his own care needs commodified, provided either by an on-demand delivery app or by his workplace.
The contemporary shift in the mode of social reproduction is based on making more of these ideal entrepreneurs, not necessarily because we need them, but because they supposedly thrive in an environment of privatized care and general macroeconomic uncertainty. The access doctrine secures consent to those conditions. By turning the problem of poverty into a problem of technology, economic security becomes a matter of getting the right tools and the right skills. Individuals must seek out these resources for themselves, and institutions can only survive by assisting them.
The function of the access doctrine, then, is not just in its ability to persuade the masses, but in its ability to mobilize different classes and different institutions into a new hegemonic bloc. Hegemony, Antonio Gramsci held, is the substitution of one class’s interest for the rest of a society’s, secured through alliances with and concessions to other classes. Ford’s five-dollars-a-day wage is the classic example: high for its time, but necessary to guarantee participation in the violent grind of the assembly line.
Capitalists cannot simply speak hegemony into being. The access doctrine persists in part through an alliance between the two sections of the professional-managerial class: those reproducing capitalist relations within the firm (such as software engineers) and those doing the work of social reproduction outside the market (helping professionals at places like libraries and schools). Remaking a city in tech’s image requires both an influx of new tech workers from the outside and the transformation of the existing populace in support of that new project.
But unlike those members of the professional-managerial class, who are isolated from the working class they manage, teachers, librarians, and the like are, in the course of their everyday duties, directly confronted with the dual assault on both their own organizations and the livelihoods of the people they serve. In the Washington, DC library and school systems, which I explore in my book The Promise of Access: Technology, Inequality, and the Political Economy of Hope, that class consciousness has led to, at best, ambiguity. But other schools, libraries, and cities are possible.
Sites of Struggle
The power of the access doctrine resists refutation. Politically, it’s ultimately unfalsifiable. Even if today’s training regime does not work, new technologies will always arrive and, for those interested in shifting the risk of economic transition to individual workers, they will always demand new skills. But understanding its role in social reproduction is an important first step in any attempt to act on that sphere of the political economy and, perhaps, to rebuild it in a shape more conducive to human flourishing.
Such a movement will require a broad, organized assault on the neoliberal political apparatus. Had I the recipe for such a program, I would gladly share it. However, I am confident that our economy can be, if not remade, at least equalized, and the bootstrapping cycle broken by the people within these institutions.
This will require a split within the professional-managerial class. So-called “helping professionals” must break with the tech workers with whom they shared college dorms and now share apartment buildings. Instead, they must organize at the point of reproduction in solidarity with their patrons and students, based on the recognition that both helper and helped share an interest in preserving the institutions of public service threatened by the access doctrine.
Strategically, both sides need each other. The helping professionals are few in number, and state and capital can easily paint their protests as a dereliction of sacred duties (e.g., “teacher strikes hurt kids”). They need support from the communities they serve in order to stand up to this political pressure. On the other hand, students, patrons, and their communities have numbers, but lack the strategic position within the mode of reproduction that helpers’ work provides. A protest in support of library patrons is one thing, but a library shut down by its workers is another thing entirely—revealing just how much the city relies on those institutions to function and the sort of power those professionals have. That work is already happening across the country. The Chicago Teachers Union led the way in 2012 (and again in 2019), organizing teachers and parents alongside workers. Recent teacher strikes across the country have used the same tactics to join struggles against school privatization and school policing with teachers’ fights for better jobs and better pay.
Centers of social reproduction like schools and libraries are not merely victims of neoliberal reform, but sites of struggle in which counter-movements can be built. The story driving so much of our thinking about poverty—“The Internet: Your Future Depends on It”—did not appear out of thin air. It had to be told over and over, reinforced through computer certifications, progress reports, and planning documents. We built these coping strategies to make overwhelming economic inequality sensible and navigable. But if access today fundamentally means an opportunity to compete, then an alternative should not be so hard to imagine. If the world as it currently exists is one where we must be granted the tools necessary to strive for excellence, to innovate beyond our current dire straits, and to outcompete inequality, then surely another world is possible—one where innovation is boring and excellence is unnecessary, because the good life is ordinary.