Digital Technology and Cultures/How Does Technology Affect Class Identity

How does technology (digital and smart devices) affect or form class identity (changes in economic, social, and cultural capital)?

It is estimated that by 2020, “more than 7 billion people worldwide will use over 35 billion connected devices to communicate, collaborate, negotiate and perform transactions over web and mobile channels” (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2015). The proliferation of technology not only impacts social class status, but social class formation, division, and factors that contribute to each group. Still, many persons understand less where they fall within social class as digital cultures muddle types of capital. This lack of clear identification or understanding does not diminish the significance of class hierarchy as the digital space categorizes content through aspects like class and worker issues aren’t clearly addressed through such oversight or lack of digital social class cohesion.

First, social class is often categorized within the broad categories of upper, middle, and lower. While these categories may hold actual income brackets, there is also the feeling of where one falls within the structure. Types of capital, as outlined by philosopher and sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, influence our social class standing, such as economic capital, social capital, and culture capital. Specifically within cultural capital which can be vital to digital cultures and self perception within a digital space, there is the cultural capital which comes from acquired knowledge, owned and experience culture, and social recognition (Yates et al, 2018). A brief reflection upon these factors shows how digital devices influence knowledge acquired through the internet, how experience is shared through social media, and how recognition can form through sharing content and therefore imposes a force our self perceived social class rank. Yet how do existing class rank based on financial income connect and influence digital cultures at the outset.

Comparisons between social class and technology expose who occupies the digital space. Patterns begin to arise between Internet use and income or education level as show in the charts below from “Social Media and Social Class”:

While the charts above are a limited scope of technology use, these do expose the traditional exclusion of lower income, lower educated persons being mirrored within the digital network of society and the ever present digital divide. These persons are less likely to utilize technology in relation to knowledge or opportunity gains. The researchers highlight how class affects “citizens’ exposure to and willingness to invest in skills and knowledge and shapes their disposition toward and familiarity with technology” and this relationship then influences the perception of “benefits gained” (Yates et al, 2018). Inequity begins to form around a lack of participation and digital production .

Digital culture and technology has created new ways of considering social class theoretically including immaterial labor, digital labor, informational and cultural work, “concept of free labor under conditions of the New Economy, as well as the now-famous notions of social factory” (Qiu, 2018). Social class is often identified with income and therefore types of work, yet, as work changes with digital technology, it is not as easy for many to clearly or neatly identify their social class. In recent decades jobs have shifted from long-term, 40 hr work weeks to a gig economy. This is not a transition from standard work to independent contractor, but to contingent and precarious work that exposes persons to greater exploitation and health risk. Yet, many do not identify with service sector workers that often face poor working conditions. “Behind the employer’s rhetoric of “sharing economy,” “flexibility,” and “independence,” equally used for other types of precarious conditions”, persons do not quickly find issue with concerning “job insecurity, job demands, low wages, lack of benefits (pensions, workers’ compensation, health insurance), and difficulty in forming a union” (Muntaner, 2018). There is a difference in self-perception and unified identification for change, but, again, the digital space seems to mirror a common employer and worker class relation.

There have been attempts to change the way social class is measured to better reflect the influence of technology and digital cultures. In 2013, the Great British Class Survey used Pierre Bourdieu’s three areas of capital to create seven classes: elite, established middle class, technical middle class, new affluent workers, traditional working class, emergent service workers, and precariat.

This new arrangement “based on income and assets, social acquaintances and cultural activities” considered the growing effect of social and cultural capital while many persons may still lack economic capital (Mahdawi, 2018). Excluding elite, all of the classes ranked economic capital lower than other factors. Yet, it is important to keep in mind, even with high social and cultural capital this does not mean across class as filter bubbles still exist. For instance, among the working class that now face diminished physical social interaction due to a lack of unions and other social arrangements, there is a “working-class network society” under social formation (Qiu, 2018).

The social media platform of about 1 billion persons, Facebook, has also created a class system geared at marketing. In the US, most persons, more than 70%, consider themselves middle-class no matter their income and, while that self-perception is vital to understanding class formation and interaction, it has no bearing on the way one is unknowingly, digitally sorted. The target option is used to “increase awareness about products or services” and will therefore reflect the structure we tend to see where we live, such as, a Whole Foods in an upscale neighborhood or a payday loan store in a low-income neighborhood. Options and access become limited by the virtual environment (Mahdawi, 2018). The indicators do vary somewhat prioritizing age and assets. If you’re 20 to 30 years old, then the number of internet-connected devices you own is the predominant signifier of your social status; if you’re 30-40, whether you own a house is most important” (Mahdawi, 2018).

This may be a small hint, especially within a lower income bracket, why persons may feel part of a more financially stable middle-class category. For younger persons, devices and connectivity help form social status and, while not free or available to all, are both lower forms of social class entry or elevation than perhaps a vehicle. These devices hold an idea of potential/opportunity when compared to static objects like furnishings, but devices and connectivity hold little or no resale value, are quickly obsolete, nothing is owned, and would not contribute to generational wealth in a broad sense. Still with the impact of platforms like Facebook, “access to the internet and technological literacy have become important new class markers” (Mahdawi, 2018). Ownership as well has diminishing importance as technology and apps create greater opportunity to subscribe or share objects for a fraction of the price of personal possession. I will not dive too deeply into the homogenization of identity through standardized-shared objects.

Pierce’s Theory of Signs acts to expand on the way objects are perceived whether as icon, index, or symbol and can expand our view of technological devices. Indices may form within our understanding as we observe the world and see the connection of one thing to another or “two things acting upon one another”, but symbols are taught and completely constructed through culture (Peirce et al, 1992). We would not know the meaning of symbols by observing them. Therefore we may wonder, are digital devices indices or symbols? Some may clearly answer symbols as the objects themselves hold unique cultural value. Where once the rareness of objects like computers could have indicated certain traits about persons, perhaps occupation, income, interest, or education, the prevalence of such digital devices now only provides mild indication as technology becomes necessary within all environments. A specific smart device as a symbol demonstrates a certain set of assumptions, for instance, an Apple user or a Google Home user or an Android user. Yet, do users mistakenly see devices, specifically smart devices and their connection to the Internet, as indices?

What objects do, what objects are perceived to do (indices), and what objects mean (symbol) for the user are all different. Does a smart device acts upon our life to expand knowledge, access, and network? Where there are computers, there is education. Where there is wifi, there is advancement. It may sound like a stretch, but the language or rhetoric of technology has a powerful push on its idea as an active entity of progress. Dr. Carolyn R. Miller explains how technological discourse is influenced by timing or the rhetorical device of kairos to “look for the particular opportunity in a given moment, to find - or construct - an opening in the here and now, in order to achieve something there and then” (Miller, 1994). Although Miller’s argument specifically references the point of view of business planners, market planners, R&D decision makers, and fiscal directors, technological discourse is not only limited to these persons as millions around the world watch Apple launches or highlights from Google conferences on YouTube. The general public would now clearly connect technology with “change, development, progress” and “expressions such as the "state of the art," the research "front," "the cutting edge," all of which orient our understanding to the expansion of a territory” tinge the products we own with symbolic meaning, but flood users with action words that assume logic as simple as where there is heat, there is fire (Miller, 1994). “Kairos in technical discourse functions primarily to create opportunities for opportunity” as we unconsciously sit in front of machines and open more windows (Miller, 1994). Looking at digital devices, these could be defined as opportunities for opportunity, as would a stove, but with a stove, the limits are understood as well as the potential output and the items needed to even obtain an output. Digital devices may seem different as all input and output are not full defined and understood along with what the user contributes to obtain anything if not merely opportunity and not necessarily result or limited result with the influence of outside forces.  

Work Cited

Mahdawi, Arwa. 2018. “Facebook Is Coding a Whole New Class System | Arwa Mahdawi.” The Guardian, February 13, 2018, sec. Opinion.

Miller, Carolyn R. 1994. “Opportunity, Opportunism, and Progress:Kairos in the Rhetoric of Technology.” Argumentation 8 (1): 81–96.

Muntaner, Carles. 2018. “Digital Platforms, Gig Economy, Precarious Employment, and the Invisible Hand of Social Class.” International Journal of Health Services 48 (4): 597–600.

Peirce, Charles S., Nathan Houser, and Christian J. W. Kloesel. 1992. The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Qiu, Jack Linchuan. 2018. “China’s Digital Working Class and Circuits of Labor.” Communication and the Public 3 (1): 5–18.

The Economist Intelligence Unit. 2015. “The Economics of Digital Identity,” February, 21.

Yates, Simeon, and Eleanor Lockley. 2018. “Social Media and Social Class.” American Behavioral Scientist 62 (9): 1291–1316.