A framework for understanding the totality of costs and benefits of universal access that will foster honest appraisal and guide the development of good policies.
Universal access—the idea that certain technologies and services should be extended to all regardless of geography or ability to pay—evokes ideals of democracy and equality that must be reconciled with the realities on the ground. The COVID-19 pandemic raised awareness of the need for access to high-speed internet service in the United States, but this is just the latest in a long history of debates about what should be made available and to whom. Rural mail delivery, electrification, telephone service, public schooling, and library access each raised the same questions as today's debates about health care and broadband. What types of services should be universally available? Who benefits from extending these services? And who bears the cost?
Stepping beyond humanitarian arguments to conduct a clear-eyed, diagnostic analysis, this book offers some surprising conclusions. While the conventional approach to universal access looks primarily at the costs to the system and the benefits to individuals, Harmeet Sawhney and Hamid Ekbia provide a holistic perspective that also accounts for costs to individuals and benefits for systems. With a comparative approach across multiple cases, Universal Access and Its Asymmetries is an essential exploration of the history, costs, and benefits of providing universal access to technologies and services. With a fresh perspective, it overturns common assumptions and offers a foundation for making decisions about how to extend service—and how to pay for it.
Harmeet Sawhney is Professor, The Media School, Indiana University, Bloomington. He is Editor-in-Chief of The Information Society.
Hamid Ekbia is Professor, School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering, Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of Heteromation and Other Stories of Computing and Capitalism (MIT Press) and Artificial Dreams: The Quest for Non-Biological Intelligence (Cambridge University Press).
“In a work destined to become a classic, Sawhney and Ekbia provide a long-overdue critical perspective on the 'universalizing impulse' in social infrastructures.”
Milton L. Mueller, Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology
“A grand history of the concepts and policies driving ideas of equity and progress in American life, illuminating both the shrouded corners and the major arcs of how we have sought to be connected.”
Sharon Strover, Philip G. Warner Regents Professor in Communication, University of Texas at Austin
“The authors remind analysts of American schooling that there are both 'gains and travails' from universal access for students and political systems alike that should be, and are often not, fully understood or acknowledged.”
Bob Pepperman, Taylor Elliott A. Brown Green and Gold Professor of Law, Politics, and Political Behavior Department of Political Science University of Vermont
The open access edition of this book was made possible by generous funding and support from MIT Press Direct to Open