Scenario: Hung Out to Dry?

Christina B. Class, Stefan Ullrich, Carsten Trinitis

Nadia and Heinz have been together since their senior year in high school. Green-with-envy friends sometimes refer to them as “a real-life dream couple.” They have two sons, aged fourteen and nine, and live in a two-bedroom apartment in a fairly big city. Nadia studied art history and completed her PhD in the subject. Unfortunately, though, she couldn’t find a job in her field after an eight-month paid internship at a museum. Now, she’s working part-time for minimum wage at a local supermarket. Heinz studied journalism but couldn’t find a full-time job either and works part-time delivering packages.

Whenever he can, he takes on freelance work writing for the local daily paper. However, the assignments are scarce and poorly paid. The job market in their area doesn’t offer many alternatives, at least not without specific training. They manage to get by—more or less—but it hasn’t gotten any easier. Their two sons share the larger of the two bedrooms, but Nadia and Heinz would prefer that their kids each have a room of his own— after all, the eldest is already a teenager. After an intensive two-year apartment search and facing rent increases even for their current apartment, they finally gave up looking for a new place. Luckily, their apartment at least has a small balcony—a veritable godsend during all the COVID-19 quarantines.

The family shares one computer, which Heinz also needs to write his articles. Fortunately, when the school switched to online instruction during the pandemic, parents were given the option of purchasing tablets on credit. Nadia had a hard time even asking for it, and convincing school administrators that they were eligible for the program was no small task. When she completed her doctorate, she was so proud that she entered her doctor title in her paperwork. Over the years, Heinz has often published articles about school policies at the district and state levels. A “Dr.” and a well-known journalist can’t afford computers for their sons? It was like running the gauntlet. They were lucky enough to get through it, and while payments of fifty euros a month were nothing to sneeze at, at least both sons could participate in their online classes.

Nadia is already dreading the start of the coming school year. New editions have been issued for most of the boys’ textbooks, so they’ll have to buy new books for them both. German public schools supply educational
materials for free, what a joke!

All four have smartphones, but Nadia’s is outdated and no longer supports many applications. But it’s good enough for her. Her younger son inherited his father’s old smartphone—he wasn’t exactly thrilled but eventually came to terms with it. Nadia can’t complain—they’re all healthy, and aside from the financial woes, they are a happy family.

Tonight, though, they don’t want to think about it. They’re attending their twentieth-year class reunion at a restaurant and want to enjoy themselves. It’s been ten years since they’ve seen some of these people. How have they been? Guests begin showing up, one after another. After meeting on the terrace for a round of chit-chat in small groups, they are seated at a table. Since it’s only a group of twenty, they all fit at one large table. After dinner, Andreas boasts about his latest project: He’s started his own software company and created a new app for his local community transportation association. Users of the app are guaranteed the best fares on public transportation.

The plan is to gradually eliminate all ticket vending machines except at a few central stops. In an emergency, passengers can still purchase one-ride tickets from the bus driver or the train conductor. But these days, no one needs the kind of multiple-ride tickets dispensed at vending machines. In a pinch, these can still be purchased at a ticket counter, but why bother when you get a ten percent discount using the app? He’s incredibly proud of collaborations with an organization for senior citizens and people with disabilities. The app is as barrier-free as it gets and employs state-of-the-art technology. When pressed for more details, he gushes about the potential of the newest generation of standard operating systems.

While taking a break, Nadia points out that not everyone can afford the latest smartphones. What about them? Andreas chuckles and says, “Those welfare recipients need to get over themselves! They can use the ticket counter—if there’s one thing they do have, it’s time on their hands. And they rarely have to get on the bus anyway.” Nadia swallowed hard, but Heinz, seated beside her, was so annoyed that he knocked over his beer and went off on Andreas. Who on earth did he think he was? A lot of people with jobs were hit hard by poverty, too. Despite their education and employment, he and his wife, for example, often had no idea how to manage surprise expenses when they came up. And no, there’s no way they’d be able to afford those excellent new smartphones. More and more, they’re being left out and left behind. Every time some shiny new thing comes along, they find it harder and harder to keep up, and it feels like they’re being hung out to dry.

An awkward silence falls over the table. People weren’t used to seeing Heinz fall out like that. Maria chimed in quietly: “Ever since my husband left me with my young daughter three years ago, I’m often at a loss about where the money for even the basics is supposed to come from. For the past two months, I’ve had to pinch every penny just to be able to be here tonight. And, ever since my smartphone crapped out four months ago, I’ve been using my old cell so that I can at least be reached by phone.”


  • Poverty is a social problem. People living in poverty are excluded from many things and only have limited options for participation, especially when it comes to leisure activities. Is this an ethical issue?
  • Financial means determine whether someone can afford the hardware, Internet access, and software licenses. What are the concrete ramifications of this gap between the “haves” and the “have-nones” as it pertains to access? Is this an ethical issue?
  • Even in Germany, people in certain regions are cut off from adequate Internet access because neither the mobile nor the fiber optic network has been sufficiently built out. What is the difference between people who are cut off because of where they live and those who are cut off because of limited financial resources? Is there a difference?
  • What responsibility does society have to prevent anyone from being barred access to digital services based solely on lack of financial resources? Which services apply?
  • Administrative agencies increasingly rely on online services—to place requests for certain documents or to schedule appointments, for example. In your opinion, what alternative access options should be made available from an ethical perspective?
  • There have always been differences that affect degrees of accessibility: disabilities, literacy levels, or geography (rural versus urban). Is access to digital participation simply another dimension? Or do these differences carry more weight? Should they be subject to different ethical standards?
  • How should these topics be addressed in studying and teaching computer science? What can be done to raise awareness about these issues?
  • How can issues of digital participation for people living in poverty be accounted for in software development? For what kinds of projects is this necessary?
  • Should software development budgeting include funding for social welfare expenses?
  • In your opinion, should poverty be taken up as an index of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)?
  • What role do IT systems play in participation in public/social life?
  • From a strictly technical standpoint, is it necessary to design the newest versions of apps so that they can only run using the latest hardware and model? Wouldn’t some degree of backward compatibility make sense?
  • One final thought: Despite our best-laid plans, life intervened, and we didn’t have enough time to write this column. So we’re back to the same procedure as always—the writing team has composed this first draft, and it’s being sent for feedback to the list of active members in this specialty group. We’d hoped to stick to the original topic and point to the difficulties that arise for people living in poverty when they don’t have adequate access to technology. However, time constraints prevented us from including the perspectives of people who are the subjects of our study. This happens all too often, not just in this case. Is that an ethical problem? Do our good intentions justify the fact that we are speaking here “about” people, not “to/with” them? What can we do to prevent this from happening in the future? How can we better involve people impacted by our work in our thought processes, discussions, and actions?

Erschienen im Informatik Spektrum 45 (3), 2022, S. 194–196.

Translated from German by Lillian M. Banks

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