Charles Benton Early Career Scholar Award

Presentation during Saturday lunch

The Charles Benton Junior Scholar Award recognizes significant achievement by an early career scholar in the areas of digital inclusion and/or broadband adoption, as evidenced by an empirically-based research paper, a policy proposal with justification or an original essay.  This special program was created in 2017 and is awarded each year at the TPRC Conference offering the recipient a $1,500 cash prize.

The 2019 recipient of the Charles Benton Early Career Scholar Award is Burcu Baykurt, University of Massachusetts Amherst for her paper (DIS)CONNECTING THE DIGITAL CITY.

Presenting the award at TPRC are Robin Mansell and Adrianne Benton Furniss, Charles’ daughter and the Executive Director of the Benton Foundation. Thank you to the Award Review committee Jon Gant, Michael Calabrese, Amit Schejter, Bill Dutton, Colin Rhinesmith, and chaired by Robin Mansell.

The abstract of the paper:

Smart or digital cities do not grow de novo: they assume the strengths and limitations of extant urban infrastructures, to paraphrase Susan Leigh Star and Karen Ruhleder (1996). This paper examines how the connectivity infrastructures of the digital city are laid over uneven terrains and the ways residents react to those changes. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in an aspiring smart city in the U.S. Midwest, I discuss how this new urbanism reifies longstanding urban divides. I particularly focus on the ideal of connectivity in the age of smart cities, as tech companies and public officials mobilize it to benefit from and reinforce the idea that better connectivity serves to bridge divides and helps the poorer parts of the city. Yet connectivity in the contemporary city is “privacy poor, surveillance rich” (Gangadharan, 2017), thereby creating further divides between young, middle-class, white residents who hope that better connectivity leads to turning their hometown into the next Silicon Valley and already- marginalized populations who have long been under the prying eye of public and commercial surveillance. 

The paper highlights the case study of the ConnectHome initiative in Kansas City, where Google, local government, and the public housing authority partnered to provide free gigabit internet service to public housing residents. While public officials and tech executives tried to fix the city’s “adoption” problem, residents were reluctant to adopt what they perceived to be surveillance technologies. By discussing this clash of interpretations between residents and ConnectHome stakeholders, the paper invites policymakers and scholars to rethink the utility of current assumptions and aspirations in studies of digital inclusion and privacy. The stakes of not sorting out this clash are high. The failure of digital inclusion initiatives in the smart city may perpetuate the state of disenfranchised neighborhoods as “data deserts”— areas characterized by a lack of access to and representation in data. By highlighting the racialized and classed experiences of connectivity in the digital city, the paper calls for different communities’ right to self- determination regarding digital infrastructures in the city. 

About Charles Benton and the Benton Foundation

Charles Benton was a determined, passionate and agile businessman and philanthropist who, over many decades, pursued a vision of empowering people to use the latest communications tools to improve the lives of all.  A regular attendee at TPRC’s annual conference, he is fondly remembered for his commitment to digital inclusion and broadband adoption research and scholarship.  

Charles founded the Benton Foundation in 1981 as the legacy of his father and served as its Chairman until his death in 2015.  Benton Foundation is guided by Charles’ vision to ensure that media and telecommunications serve the public interest and enhance democracy.