CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The transition to a digital society is negatively threatening and marginalizing those at the bottom, Annenberg Dean Ernest J. Wilson III said at the Harvard University W.E.B. Du Bois Lecture Series this week.
By delivering the three-day lecture series, which ended Thursday, Wilson joined previous Du Bois lecturers, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Cornel West, a prominent professor in Princeton University’s Center for African-American Studies.
The lecture series is named after scholar, writer, editor and civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois, the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University.
Wilson’s remarks during the series focused on his study of a wide variety of contemporary digital-era issues.
Wilson described a “scissor effect” in which minority ownership, control and content in media assets has decreased with the growth of media dominance and importance. In 2009, Wilson said, African-Americans owned 1 percent of media properties. Today, that number has declined to 0.7 percent.
“We should care about this because we are citizens and these are matters of the life and death of democracy,” Wilson said. “The number of African-Americans and other people of color in positions of senior leadership and ownership of media properties is either stagnant or declining.”
Brandon Terry, a post-doctoral student at Harvard, said Wilson’s talk touched upon a very pertinent issue.
“Dean Wilson is tackling probably the most crucial issue in politics and economics right now,” Terry said. “We’re on the cusp of an enormous transformation of economy and society which is brought on by digital innovation.”
Wilson’s remarks considered how Du Bois would react and think about this new digital divide. Wilson set up a website, www.DigitalDubois.net several weeks before the series. On the site, Wilson posted four questions, including how the introduction of new communication technologies has affected the African-American community and what the impact has been on minority interaction with other communities.
Benjamin Todd Jealous, CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was among those who listed responses.
“Du Bois was a communicator’s communicator,” Jealous wrote. “I have no doubt that Du Bois would use digital media and mobile technology to do what he did in his prime — reach out, inspire, unify and activate members of the black community and people of good conscience of all colors.”
Michael Copps, a senior adviser for Common Cause, also contributed a post to the website.
“Broadband is the essential infrastructure of the Twenty-first century,” Copps wrote. “This is a civil rights issue — perhaps the preeminent one confronting us right now, because the outcome of so many other great challenges resides on how we deal with this one. Du Bois would have recognized this … we should recognize it, too.”
In his closing remarks before a lecture room filled with Harvard students and academics, Wilson said giving the lectures was not just a professional pleasure, but a personal one.
Wilson’s grandfather graduated from Harvard in 1910 when Du Bois was still a student there. A picture of Wilson’s grandfather alongside Du Bois was displayed on screens during the event.
[Correction: A previous version of this article stated Wilson’s grandfather gradated from Harvard in 1910 when Du Bois was a student there. Du Bois received a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1895.]
“What I want to accomplish with these lectures is inspiring a rethinking of our political agenda on the topic,” Wilson said. “These issues are so important for the future of America and for people of color to a transition of an information-based society. This is an issue much too important to be left up to economists and policy makers.”