On the Digital Divide

I have a talk I give that I call Postcards from the Other Edge of the Digital Divide where I discuss the choices that people and institutions make, and how those choices affect the information poor. I have a new set of talks I’m working on that I can sum up thusly “You can’t fix the digital divide with another damned website.” The Gates Foundation and the It’s All Good/OCLC folks have both had something to say about this topic somewhat recently and I really wonder how their professional interests affect their outlooks.

I personally have a dog in this fight. I teach basic computer skills to people, using library and school computers. Most of these people don’t have computers at home. Their ages range from 8 to 80. However the library computer is configured, that’s what they think of as “a computer” until such a time as they go to another library, or get a computer of their own. Many of my students will likely never have their own computers in their lifetimes. We talk about things like how to get on eBay for my senior citizen students who are downsizing. We talk about how to use a mouse well enough so that people can apply for jobs at Home Depot or the supermarket, both of which have computer-only application procedures. I define terms like cookies and “hard drive” and “click” and “enter key.” It’s a rare class that goes by that someone in my class doesn’t tell me something that I show them is like magic to them. I train librarians as much as I train residents. Where do the librarians learn this stuff in a rural area where the library is open ten hours a week?

I got my job because of the digital divide. The digital divide may be an overused and overgeneral term, but the problem it points out is real, and specific, and fundable. The world is doing more of its work digitally, and online, especially in the US. People who don’t grok “online” or “digital” can interact with less and less of the world just by doing what they’ve always done. This is a literacy issue, but also a hardware issue, at least where I am. The Government Printing Office is printing less and less and putting more and more online. People who understand the internet get their printers for $30 when they’re on sale [with free shipping!] and shop around for ink cartridges, people who don’t know this go to Staples on their lunch hour and choose from what’s available and get jacked for ink refills. Then they get home and find out there’s no cable in the box and they have to drive 35 miles back to get one.

The digital divide is real like poverty is real, and it’s self-reinforcing like poverty can be self-reinforcing. Part of the problem is access to the technology itself, but a larger part is access to solid information about technology, technologically knowledgeable people, and a community culture that views technology as a possible solution to some of its other challenges, not just another challenge in and of itself. How do you help communities get to that point? How do you help a librarian like my town librarian see why she might want to have a computer in the library — not a second or third computer, any computer at all?

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