Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Not Convinced Yet

Sorry, Alane, your comments just doesn't wash for me. I still can't bring myself to equate helping someone use technology with colonialism or paternalism.

Public libraries in the US have traditionally (that is, for the last century or so) seen that giving people access to the intellectual tools they need to improve their lives is part of their mission. That's not colonialism, it's self-help. It may be a very old-fashioned ideal, but there it is.

If it's paternalism or colonialism to try to offer any sort of patch to the economic, social, ethnic, or demographic issues in this country, we might as well close all the public libraries now. Most of us know we can't change the world, we're just going to try to help a few people along the way. That's why we got into this field. To give up because we can't change it all is a cop out, IMHO.


jessamyn said...

I'm with you. In my communities we usual call such kind of help "mutual aid" We're not just airdropping laptops from helicopters over poor areas, we're teaching our skills and other people are teaching us theirs. The reason the digital divide exists is that sometimes there is no one at all in an area with the technology skills to share this sort of information, though you can usually find a farmer, a plumber, a babysitter, a chemist, whathaveyou.

Public libraries can sometimes suffer from being paternalistic in that educated vs. non-educated way. However, their local focus and their local funding basically keeps them from being colonialist by definition. Only outsiders can be colonizers. You can talk about the Gates Foundation this way if you need to, or maybe even OCLC, it's an arguable point, but for individual libraries you just can't.

Andy Havens said...

Back when I was in the midst of my 10-year stint in wireless marketing, I had a chance to spend some time with some folks who had set up a new wireless phone system in a part of India where there had never been landline telephone access. This kind of "leapfrogging" technology is becoming more and more prevalent in parts of the world where it wasn't economical to install older, more centralized types of systems, but where "cell type" operations can be put up realtively cheaply, and then expanded when needed.

The guys I was talking with explained how they had done all kinds of marketing research in the area before they went in. People there, though they didn't have phone service, said they'd love to have it. They, of course, had heard about phones from friends, relatives and through the media. The numbers looked great, they told me. People were really looking forward to it.

So... up went a few towers, and the doors on the store opened. People bought cell phones and... nothing happened. Almost no usage. After the initial ring of the cash registers for the equipment, there was no revenue. Which is very, very bad when all your research shows that people were crazy happy to get at your product, and when, in fact, they just lined up to buy the phones.

So why weren't they calling?

They didn't know how, and they didn't know why.

After about three months of further market research, the company discovered that many of the new users, while they understood the mechanics of the equipment -- they could read the manuals, after all -- didn't understand the context. Further, they had no idea WHY, other than an emergency, you'd pick up a piece of plastic and yodel at someone several miles away, or in another part of the world.

Phone calling had not yet become part of their social DNA. We've had 100 years to get to the point where we're on the phone all the time. This was a community that had been doing fine (thank you very much) without any phone service for... well... forever.

So... the phone company my buddies worked for started holding free classes to explain what you could do with a cell phone. How you could use it for business, with your family, with friends, for entertainment; both locally and around the country and across the globe. All the things we grew up with on our landline phones, and that make perfect sense to us. What time does the movie start? Call and find out. What should we have for dinner? Call and ask. What did Tina say that Tony said to Trish about Trudy? None of these ideas for conversations had ocurred to the folks of this area before. And why would they? We learned them from our parents and peers... who all had phones. Without that context -- a network of people who have had 100 years of trial and error and usage data -- you need phone tutors to figure out what to do with the silly things.

What's my point? That the digital divide (or whatever we call it) is both about access to equipment and access to context. If you live for long enough without a phone, you won't "get it" at all, even when you finally do get the phone... not without help. And if you don't get it, you'll be, essentially, a pariah among those who do.

"Why didn't you call and ask before you came over?"

"Why didn't I call? What does that mean?"

Can you imagine what it would be like to not "get it" about how to use a phone in America? We're closing in on that point for computers.

We just passed the point a few years back where more than 50% of the US GDP is service revenue based. Many of those services are being ported at least partially, and in some cases entirely, to the Internet and other platforms that require access to specific technologies, and/or a higher level of training and understanding of tech in general. Technology literacy is becoming a key to participating in the service economy.

Bruce Newell said...

I think I am with George on this one. To the degree that libraries 'empower' (hate that word, but it fits) users to discover, tell, or share their story (in the broadest sense), libraries have a continuing and vital self-help role. Which is in the best of public libraries tradition of self-help, improvement, or enlightenment.

What would Thomas Jefferson say?