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10 July 2008

Concerning the digital divide in America

I am an American blogging at a public library. The blog entry you are reading was posted at a public library. It was written at home. The sentence you are now reading was typed in at 7/10/2008 1:52:06 AM (EDT, GMT-4). My trusty USB flash drive is a key part of my window on the world, or at least on the world-wide web.

I am heartened to see that the domestic digital divide has become a political issue here in America, and that a political movement is growing around the issue. While certainly less severe in its implications than the global digital divide, the domestic digital divide is a very real social divide with very real consequences. Advantages and disadvantages alike tend to accumulate. The fact that job hunting can still be done without using the Internet does not imply that the unwired have access to the job market. The fact that people still meet in meatspace does not imply that the unwired have adequate social outlets.

The nature of the digital divide is different in America than it is in the so-called developing world. Here, access to computers is not the real problem. I own three working computers, one of which I garbage-picked, another of which I obtained at a garage sale. I don't have residential Internet access, and I don't think getting it would be prudent at my meager level of "disposable income." The domestic digital divide movement, to its credit, understands that the cost of services (you pay by the month) is more burdensome than the cost of goods (you bought it you own it) for the American of meager means. In general, though, I have some real concerns about how they are framing the issue. Consider the website of Internet for Everyone: I find the overall tone of their line of argument to be an appeal to nationalism. To them, it is a moral imperative that America be (bar none) the world leader in broadband access, and apparently also in broadband penetration. Barriers to the latter include access and affordability, but also the fact that some people don't want broadband. I respect that, just as I expect not watching television to be considered an acceptable (or at least tolerated) lifestyle. I certainly don't consider it my patriotic duty to watch TV. I'm a little troubled that the access activists speak only of broadband access. If the price of dial-up access could be reduced to, say, two dollars a month (ideally coupled of course with a comparable reduction in the cost of POTS), I would consider my own quality of life increased. I certainly felt more connected back when I was using dial-up access at home, on demand, than I do now using a broadband connection at a library computer lab that keeps banker's hours, and where there are often no vacant seats. My online interests tend more to the so-called semantic web than to multimedia content, and connectivity is currently more of an albatross in my life than bandwidth. I can forgive this policy emphasis, as dial-up will eventually be phased out. Also, there must be many Americans who find dial-up within their budget and for whom broadband (and presumably cable TV) would be an extravagance. These people are obviously constrained by a digital divide, and have nothing to watch save (in the immortal lyrics of Pink Floyd) 13 channels of shit on the TV to choose from. I also understand that American public opinion is wired in such a way that it's impossible to sell anything in the marketplace of political ideas without framing it as a national security (or at least a national supremacy) issue. After all the official name of the interstate highway system is the "interstate national defense highway system" or words to that effect. So, in the name of pragmatism, I must somehow forgive the movement for appealing to nationalism.

I'm also a little disturbed that the Internet access issue, like the health care access issue, is leading to comparisons between America and the rest of the so-called developed world. I am gravely disturbed by the implications of the theory that economic development is a prerequisite for political freedom. I am also concerned that framing the digital divide as a domestic issue or a "developed world" issue may have the effect of de-linking, at least in some minds, America's digital divide from humanity's digital divide. As an aside, I just noticed that MS Word 97 just grammar-flagged "digital divide," suggesting "digitals divide" and "digital divides" as alternatives. Funny how our language evolves, or for that matter how, in general, languages evolve. Anyway, back to the subject at hand; bridging the digital divides. As a consumer of online content and as an intermittent participant in online society (i.e., a vagrant netizen) I would find a mass influx of "developing world" residents into cyberspace more entertaining and more socially enlightening than, say, a 20% increase in American participation...even if I found myself still observing it from a public access terminal. I must confess I sometimes envy the citizens of the non-USA part of the "first world" for amenities such as 3+ party democracy and the social possibilities of a society in which "economic security" (and sometimes even "public sector") isn't a dirty word. Nevertheless, I am deeply grateful for the good fortune of having been born here in America, where the public library is an entrenched (though unfortunately endangered) social institution. This institution, along with the philanthropy of such organizations as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which donated some of the computers in my home town library), makes possible the blog which you are reading. In that spirit, I have an American flag sticker on the small plastic case in which I carry my "cyberkit," consisting of my ear buds, flash drives and the like. That I may have less access than most of the "first world" is a political concern, but that I have far more access than most of the world's population is a fact that figures prominently on my "radar screen."

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