Monday, September 05, 2005

Crossing the Digital Divide

On Thursday, September 1, FEMA Director Michael Brown told CNN that he just learned about the people in the Convention Center that day. The media had heard the stories, but I can’t help but wondering how those voices, which rang loud and clear on CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS, didn’t break through the apparently soundproofed walls of the FEMA office.

Rich Edelman has a great post about the role the digital divide played in the government’s slow reaction to the tragedy that is New Orleans. His point is that if a major blogger was stuck in the Superdome or in the Convention Center, there is no way the government could have ignored the building crisis there. If the poorest of New Orleans had a voice before the waters came, their pleas would have been heard loud and clear, even in the FEMA office.

What I can’t figure out is, how do we get the people online in a major way? My wife points out that every major library has Internet access, but I say that’s not enough. In this society we wouldn’t ask people to go to a post office to make a phone call, we wouldn’t ask people to gather at the local pub just to watch the news on TV. In fact, I’m sure most of the poorest members of New Orleans society have TVs, phones and microwaves. But do they have even an outdated computer and Internet access?

Here in Boston there was a period of time in which Verizon provided DSL service to places like Newton, but not to neighborhoods like Allston, which is home to a much more modest level of income. I’m sure a similar divide exists in most cities.

Is this just a business issue? Are companies only giving powerful access to people who are willing to pay for it? What factors have to be in place to move Internet access from a luxury to a necessity? Do hardware prices have to be cheaper? Does access have to be cheaper? Is it not an economic factor at all, but a content factor?

You often hear people talking about the “Golden Age of Television,” that time in the 1950s when the airwaves were dominated by smart writing and highbrow comedy. Programs like “Your Show of Shows” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show” dominated TV then. Of course, what you don’t hear is how the cost of owning a TV then made it a luxury only available to those with quite a bit of disposable income, meaning upper middle class white people. That’s not the case today, with TV in most households. How did TV cross that divide? What factors made that a reality? Was it a need for information? Was it the need to know about Vietnam? Was it just the availability of cheap hardware?

Blogs can give voice to the voiceless. A blog can reach a global audience, or it can just reach your friends. The reach is limitless and so long as you tell a good story, the audience will come. It’s time we started hearing some better stories.

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