The Digital Divide: Some thoughts on our panel discussion

Our panel discussion last Monday went well, despite our rather haphazard planning process. Of course, my foray into moderating exposed some of my lack of public speaking abilities: I completely jettisoned the whole introduction I spent the weekend writing in favor of letting the speakers get right to it, and most of the questions we came up with the previous week went unasked. Ahh, nervousness. No one thought a thing of it, though. Whew.

Our first speaker was Jessamyn West, who gave a presentation on access issues in rural Vermont. She used some interesting statistics from the Vermont Telecommunications Plan, showing the lack of basic infrastruction in much of Vermont, and she mentioned briefly the fact that Verizon and other companies that provide broadband access simply don’t have an interest in wiring this part of the country: It’s not cost-effective. Of course, private industry has no obligation to engage in projects that won’t make them money, but it did make me think of the process of getting telephone lines in most of the country. If I remember my history correctly, the US government essentially forced Ma Bell to cover the entire country with telephone lines. My communist-minded self doesn’t really see any reason our government shouldn’t do this again, but I will back up and say that I don’t really know a ton about current telecommunications policy in this country.

Jessamyn also talked about people who don’t really care to be connected, what she called the “information don’t care,” as opposed to the “information poor.” I think these people can get left out of the discussion sometimes when we talk about access issues. I have several friends who have no real interest in email or the web or being on Facebook or anything of that sort, and I’m going to go right ahead and say I think that’s kind of a travesty. Jessamyn talked about respecting people’s desire to remain disconnected, but I can’t help thinking about the economic limitations that people are accepting for themselves when they decide to remain disconnected.

Our next speaker was Susan O’Connor, of the Timothy Smith Network, here in Boston, in Roxbury, to be specific. The Timothy Smith Network is a philanthropic organization dedicated to providing community technology centers and training throughout Roxbury. Much of Susan’s talk revolved around the history of the Timothy Smith Network and the leadership and managerial issues involved in keeping centers open and providing training and access. She talked about the Open Air Boston initiative to provide affordable wireless access through Boston. Some points I found interesting: The Timothy Smith Network didn’t initially have a specific goal. They had money to spend and had to spend it, so they asked the citizens of Roxbury what would be most useful, and the citizens wanted computer centers. I think that’s a great example of a non-profit engaging in needs assessment and providing what people really want, instead of what a philanthropist thinks they want, and I also found it interesting that Susan didn’t talk about the “information don’t care,” probably because, working in a computer center, she’s not as exposed to those people?

Our final speaker was Pat Oyler, a faculty member at Simmons College who has spent significant time training librarians in Vietnam and working with them to build up their library infrastructure. She pointed out that the differences between rural and urban access in the US is very similar to that in Vietnam, although it sounds like the rural areas of Vietnam are far more bereft of infrastructure. The demographic that she talked about, too, is very specific: They are library students, so they clearly are invested in information technologies and access, and it’s hard to know how they might compare with the population at large. She talked about how most access in the country is through Internet cafes, and the connection fees are very steep for most of the people. I found myself curious to know what other kinds of access points are available, and how libraries in Vietnam might be working to change that.

Overall, it was definitely informative and through provoking. We did podcast the event, and as soon as it’s edited it will be available on the GSLIScast website. I’ll try to remember to provide a link directly to it when it’s up, too. I would love to hear some of your questions and thoughts about some of these issues, too. There is certainly more to say than we could cover in even the two hours that the panel ran, and I am already thinking of a follow up event. Because, hey, I’m not busy or anything, right? :-)

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