Preview: The Digital Divide
By Mark Mederson
The digital divide is not simply about the “haves” verus the “have nots,” or, those who own a computer versus those who don’t. According to Jessamyn West, the organizer of the panel, How The Other Half Lives – Touring The Digital Divide, it’s not merely about access to the technology, it has become a necessity to know how to adequately use it as well. She believes that, in America today, literacy isn’t just about being able to read, write, and numerate; one must also be able to operate a computer, or, be “tech literate.”
She came up with the idea for the panel after attending SXSW previously and noticing attendees and panelists discussing how everyone is “totally plugged in and networked and how great that is.” West says, “I wanted to make the digerati aware that there are still people in America who are not online, who don’t get what all the fuss is and who may be using their websites or interacting with their technology, but don’t really know what they’re doing. We have to create genuine options for them as well.”
West notes that, “many jobs, even non-tech jobs require you to apply online.” She also points out that the government, at the national and local level, likes to “communicate and exchange information online.” She cites as an example, Hurricane Katrina. “In post-Katrina New Orleans when FEMA was requiring people to fill out requests for assistance, they could do so either online or via the phone. You can guess how easy it was to get through on the phone lines,” said West.
West points out that, while we have made some gains in closing the technology access gap, there is still more that needs to be done to train people how better to use the technology. “People oversimplified by saying ‘poor people don’t have computers, let’s give them computers,’ then we realized this was only part of the battle.”
Ms. West, a librarian in Turnbridge, Vermont, says that libraries are one place people, who may not otherwise have an opportunity, can get the chance to learn how to use a computer. “Public libraries are in some way filling this void and this is where my interest in this topic really started. I do a lot of direct tech instruction and education where I live in rural Vermont,” she said. And, it’s not just in rural communities, she notes that, “librarians in New York city face similar but different challenges with urban users who often have cell phones but no computers.”
She vows that her presentation, “will be a punchy, fact-based look at what the real challenges are facing people on the other side of the digital divide now that we’re past the ‘people don’t have computers’ stage and into the ‘people have no connectivity’ stage and facing the ‘people don’t know what to do with the internet once they’ve got it’ stage.”