Monday, August 15, 2005

Digital Divide - Tired Old Cliche

In the post previous to this one, George reports on comments from the HBCU event he spoke at. One of the comments was why OCLC did not reflect on the "digital divide" in the Scan seeing this is one of libraries' most pressing problems (in the opinions of the participants).

Here's why. Because the term "digital divide" is a tired old cliche, stripped of any meaning by overuse, that gets tossed around as shorthand for a host of complex issues. Ask a librarians what they mean by "digital divide" and it's likely the answers will revolve around access to the Internet/Web, computers, and broadband. Or, I should clarify, that is what I hear and have read.

But this isn't it at all. It isn't about the technology at all. It's about poverty, education, cultural values and literacy.

Those are the divides. What American librarians seem to forget when the red flag of the digital divide is waved around is that ownership and use of Internet-capable computing devices is much larger in many countries than it is here, that even very poor communities elsewhere are pooling resources to buy smart phones to share among a whole village so that farmers can check on the price of crops before selling them.

Unfortunately, the digital divide in America will not be fixed by any amount of computers in libraries. Just as is the case with most technology "problems" the root is sociocultural. The abilities to be resourceful and to learn do not come from having access to machines and bytes. So, please, as a community, let's steer clear of cliches, look on the bright side, jump with both feet into the storm before the calm and consult our inner children before we utter such bromides again.

Sadly, it will take a lot more than access to the Internet to span this divide and perhaps libraries can do a great deal to address the problems manifested as the "digital divide" by providing more literacy programs not more computers.


Mark said...

Thank you Alane for having the guts to say this in public! This is one of my main peeves about what I've seen so far in the discipline--either in a library or in school. Even most of the educated folk seem to think throwing technology at the issue will solve it, but that is simply crap!

While George makes a perfectly relevant point in the next post as to how the digital have-nots see the issue--and they are right from their point of view--just providing hardware and internet connections will not fix the massive underlying social issues.

Usually whenever I try to discuss the digital divide from this angle my schoolmates write me off as some sort of racist, classist, denier of the problem when in fact it is them who are in denial as to the depth of the issue and the complexity of the solution.

rochelle hartman said...

I want to believe that we are providing a wonderful service by having computers for the nearby low-income families, but lately, I've had too many discussions with patrons who are all kinds of put-out because they can't watch rap videos on our public access terminals on days when our bandwidth is tapped out. When I explain that we don't have the bandwidth, or want to save our resources for people using our databases and doing research, all I get is a look and eye-rolling. It's so depressing to walk through the children's room and see a bank of computers occupied by the under 12 set, many watching hardcore rap videos.

Anonymous said...

Rochelle, isn't that like getting depressed over the people reading Danielle Steele or Nicholas Sparks when we offer so many really good books?

It's more than hardware, but hardware and access are fundamental obstacles and problems.

Mark, I'm not in denial. I've worked in several libraries serving large "Digital Divide" populations, and it's like books: access to the tools is the first and most important step. We can't stop there, but the Gates report made it obvious we need to START there. I happen to be a big believer in money solving quite a few problems. I also witness the poor waiting in line at public libraries for their half-hour on a computer and I feel the difference between their world and mine.

Nothing will fix the "massive underlying social issues." Nothing. I meant it when I said the poor will always be with us.

rochelle hartman said...

Maybe it's because we can actually see what the kids are watching--videos about the virtues of pimping and drug dealing, about how women are commodities, etc... I know I'm not supposed to judge and and that I should be thrilled that the youngsters are coming in to the library to use the resources, but I find it really difficult to be joyful about having digital divide computers used as TVs. If you catch me on another day, I might be able to argue it a different way, but right now, I find it depressing. And, no, I don't think it's the same as being depressed about having popular fiction. Maybe this all adds up to me not being a consumate professional.

We do have limited resources, and we have to find some way to be equitable about allocating them. Time limits are one. And bandwidth conservation is another. Those videos are monsters!

Katie K. said...

Thanks, Rochelle! I have the same inner depression when I see the limited number of computers at our facility being used to play solitaire (or any number of other games) for hours or to listen to the music from the videos you mention. And, frequently, we have turned others away because all the terminals were reserved. Perhaps I am a glass-half-full person, but I think that we should be grateful for any technology we can provide instead of complaining that we don't have enough. If the libraries did not have computers for patrons to use, the "divide" would be much worse.
Another thing to consider is that some people choose not to have a computer and Internet access. There are people in our rural areas that have no desire to be connected to an Internet that will only be available through slow dial-up, or will crash if they want to download something. Not to mention the cost of getting service to begin with. Just because there are people who cannot survive without checking their email every hour of the day does not mean that everyone else feels the need for it.

George said...

This all sounds depressingly familiar. Remember the 1920s librarians who worried about how people who could be elevating their minds with great literature, but were frittering away their time with popular novels? The 1950s children's librarians who wouldn't buy Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys? The 1970s librarians who hated video? We are a prescriptive profession to our very DNA.

Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. Those who remember the past are condemned to watch other people repeat it.

stevo said...

How can providing people with tools that they may not usually have access to be seen as a bad thing?