[29 May 2000]
(with apologies to “Weird” Al Yankovich)
Thanks to events, such as the Super Bowl, and non-events, such as the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election Race, it is becoming increasingly apparent that one of the hot political issues of the fin de siecle is going to be Internet access. Already, liberals and conservatives alike are amassing their troops in an effort to make magazines like PopMatters indicators of “quality of life” standards for the world. On the one side, there is the argument that the Internet promises a communication medium that could simultaneously eclipse television, telephones, and the mail systems, therefore it needs to be made available to all in order to prevent a “technology gap” between social classes. On the other side is the notion that this promise means economic security for all as long as big business is allowed to regulate (read “profit from”) selling bandwidth.
Therefore it was with a sense of synchronistic irony that I came across a quote from Stephen Hardy: “But democratizing should entail more than just the opportunity to participate; it should include an opportunity to determine the nature of participation and here the industry tended to part company with democracy.” Ironic in that the quote is from a piece Hardy wrote about the creation of sports institutions and sports consumers in the late 1800s (“‘Adopted by All the Clubs’: Sporting Goods and the Shaping of Leisure, 1800-1900, published in For Fun and Profit, 1990). It seems that our needs for democratization have not changed much, nor have they been addressed any better.
No matter who wins out in the political debates about universal access to the Internet, the real question is what “the nature of participation” would be anyway. If you give a man a computer, you teach him how to surf the Internet. If you train a man to build an e-commerce site, you’ve taught him how to participate in the global culture. Or something like that.
Before we decide to vote on a candidate based on whether he’ll provide free, government-subsidized Internet access, or because he’s willing to leave access in the hands of corporate interests, let’s think about what the consequences of granting access to all classes would be.
Sure, learning to use the Internet as a reference tool is probably going to be important for all future academics. Once we can agree on what ‘Net information is valid and/or accurate, we’ll most likely wind up storing all of our data in online libraries instead of pesky, unwieldy books. And of course, e-mail will be the prevailing form of contact with the advent of faster and faster connections and instant messaging programs. Plus, the greater access to ‘Net porn might help Beck out in his quest to defy the logic of our sex laws (or at least help redefine our sexual mores).
But let’s be honest. They want us all to buy, buy, buy! E-commerce is the hottest thing to happen to the global economy since Japanese imports, and the more people that we can get connected, the better. In the guise of reducing a technology gap amongst the classes, we can surreptitiously reinforce the division between rich and poor without having to change any of our social barriers or institutions. It will be a smooth transition with a photo-op for the politician who pulls it off. Once low-income families are trying to compete with the electronic Joneses they already see advertised during their sporting events, they’ll sink themselves deeper into the credit black hole that supports the economy. Rather than trickle-down economics, we’ll reinstate trickle-up economics so that the money flows out of low-income neighborhoods and into multi-million dollar homes. “Gangsta” rap can be regulated to MP3-only formats. Heck, we can stop pumping crack into the ghettoes and get them hooked on e-trading stocks!
You see, the common myth of our current commercial reality is that owning a computer actually improves individual quality of life and lures us with an unspoken, but highly insinuated, promise of actually increasing our income. You can ask the credit card company that floated the payment on my iMac that, in the words of Ice-T, shit ain’t like that.
The promise of bandwidth has little to do with access. Sure, you need to be able to get on-line in the first place, but to have any voice at all, even something non-profit like this magazine, you have to make a personal investment of time and money. Thanks to the work of our capable editor and her personal bank account I’m able to bring you this column. There’s nothing stopping an interested, literate, low-income individual from stepping up to that plate and voicing his own opinion. Nothing but time and money.
The result is that even if Al Gore or the name of a politician in your neck of the globe can put a computer on your table at home for free, and even hook you up with a little information superhighway action, the most you can logistically hope for is the chance to help Amazon.com finally turn a profit. Sure, a few individuals will find talent and opportunity to make the Internet work for them, low-income or not. But the rest will have to rely on the specious value of email to enrich their lives.
However, the fact remains that unless computer education is given to the general populace, including lower-income individuals, a huge section of the population will be left without a means to interact in the information age. This will further entrench those whose education is already preventing them from improving their earning potential. The idea of the technology gap is not ridiculous. In fact, it’s deadly serious.
So here’s my solution, since I ultimately agree that all classes need to be educated in how to use the Internet. In the early years of the twentieth century, many low-income neighborhoods were first introduced to the telephone the miraculous communications device of its day through the implementation of public pay phones. The industrious phone company that wants to retain some control of access could do the same thing today.
First, you install an enclosed, private booth, similar to a phone booth, but make it hip, stylish, and indestructible. Put some sort of monitor, keypad, and mouse set-up in the booth and make it publicly available for a price. Maybe you could charge $.50 for five minutes, I don’t know, cost is up to you. Establish a dial-up connection homepage that makes finding info extremely easy (something like what US West Dex already uses), provide a free email address to anyone who wants one, and sit back and rake in the profits.
I have the blueprints in a safe at my house and they’re copyrighted. Any company or politician who wants to discuss this idea with me can contact me through this magazine. My fee will be steep, but equitable. Oh, and I have the perfect name for this program to hardwire our low-income communities: e-ville!
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/schabe000518/