Hernan Galperin.
USC Annenberg / Brett Van Ort

Five Minutes with Hernan Galperin: Understanding the Internet and its impact on socioeconomic development

Inside the classrooms at USC Annenberg, students are the ones typically tasked with answering the hard hitting questions. "Five Minutes with..." turns the table on faculty and staff to ask them the hard questions.

Hernán Galperin is Research Associate Professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communication, where he is affiliated with the Annenberg Research Network on International Communication

A leading expert on telecommunications policy and development, Galperin's research topics include understanding the impact of Internet adoption on socioeconomic opportunities in Latin America, examining the poverty-reduction impacts of new information and communication technologies, and understanding gender and country discrimination in online platforms for contract labor. 

His recent work includes co-editing "Internet and Poverty: Evidence and New Research Direction for Latin America," published by CIDE Press, and co-authoring "Home Broadband in Los Angeles County" as part of the Connected Cities and Inclusive Growth (CCIG) research project. 

Galperin shared a few thoughts with us about his latest research and the role the Internet has played in his own life.

When and how did you first become interested in studying the Internet?

It was during my years as a doctoral student at Stanford, in the late 1990s. This was the height of the Internet boom, and Stanford was at the center of much of the innovation around the Internet. And the Internet was taking shape as the new media per excellence. I don’t think anyone realized the potential of the Internet right away, particularly early on when it was mostly text-based. The world wide web and visual browsers changed that, and opened the Internet to a range of new and more user-friendly applications.

You recently co-authored the study "Home Broadband in Los Angeles County." From a global perspective, how does Los Angeles fare when it comes to broadband infrastructure?

When compared to other large metro areas in the U.S., Los Angeles fares relatively well in terms of broadband infrastructure. But when compared to large metro areas in other parts of the world, including some in emerging countries like China or Brazil, we are lagging behind in critical aspects, for example the deployment of fiber-based services. Los Angeles is home to some of the most creative people and businesses in the world. And broadband is a critical input for creativity and innovation. As such, Los Angeles should have a world-class broadband infrastructure. Today, this is not the case.

Are communities better off with easier access to the internet? Or can it have negative impacts?

Generally speaking, studies show that communities are better off with more Internet access. However, there are many confounding factors that make it difficult to generalize the impact mechanisms. And, yes, there can be negative impacts. For example, some studies suggest that that high levels of Internet use at schools reduce students’ performance, distracts from educational goals and negatively affects learning. Of course it all depends on how teachers use the Internet, and this was one study in one specific context (Portugal). The bottom line is that wiring schools will not, by itself, improve learning (and may even have detrimental effects if not done properly).

You've researched discrimination in online job searching in Latin America. Is there such discrimination in the U.S.? 

It is widely acknowledged that there are various forms of discrimination in the labor market, in the U.S. and elsewhere. The research challenge is distilling discrimination from a number of factors that affect job opportunities and careers, from skills to individual preferences. Audit studies have shown that discrimination based on race, nationality and other characteristics still exists, and the Internet is a great platform to study this because it allows for research in what we call natural settings, that is, in real job markets at a very large scale. This is precisely the question that we are trying to answer: as job search migrates to online platforms, and gig work opportunities online proliferate, will this increase or decrease labor market discrimination? Our preliminary findings show that it might make the problem worse because employers screen workers based on very limited information, and therefore resort to stereotypes to orient choices. But this also depends on the design of each platform. This is what we are trying to better understand.

How do you and other USC Annenberg faculty keep up with the changing media landscape?

It’s a challenge. Personally I am not very active in social media, but it has become a necessity to have your work widely disseminated. For better or worse, it’s where much of the public debate now takes place.

How will your life change if you did not have access to broadband internet?

The Internet is now such an integral part of our professional and social lives that it is difficult to imagine life without the Internet. But there is something to be said (and some research supports this) that disconnecting at times is also important. I try to unplug at home or when writing or reading a paper, often with mixed success.