Sawhney’s latest book examines universal access to technology and the importance of remembering history
IU Media School professor Harmeet Sawhney’s latest book was published by the MIT Press in December 2022. The book, “Universal Access and Its Asymmetries: The Untold Story of the Last 200 Years,” explores the inequities in access to technology in the United States. The book delves into diverse topics spanning across multiple decades such as the postal system, education, electrification, telephony, public libraries, broadcasting, and the internet.
Sawhney received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. He began his research on universal access when he started his studies there in 1987. Throughout his research, he noticed a pattern. “I found that researchers mostly documented who did not have access,” said Sawhney. “And then when a new technology came in, the same process would keep getting repeated. I thought something was wrong, it did not feel right. This is where the bigger questions came. Why did universal anything (internet, education, etc.) become an important social issue only in the last 200-odd years? Why was it not an issue 2,000 years ago, when prophets roamed the earth? Why did egalitarianism suddenly become desirable?”
Sawhney emphasizes the importance of looking back at history to understand universal access. Sawhney describes universal access as a far bigger phenomenon than a large-scale humanitarian project. “It is a social phenomenon of our industrial civilization. It was not 2,000 years ago. It is something about our civilization, our society, where we want to universalize things,” Sawhney explained.
Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, Sawhney said “COVID has made universal access a bigger policy issue.” He also expressed the importance of “seeing connectivity in all its complexity.”
Sawhney wants to acknowledge two of his former students, Krishna Jayakar and Andrew Brown, who both helped him with his book. Jayakar, Sawhney’s former doctoral advisee, gave him “steadfast critiques” that helped shape the contents of the first chapter. Brown, Sawhney’s former undergraduate student, made the professional quality graphics featured in the book.