The Digital Divide

SXSW discusses who isn't online, and why

The Digital Divide

Scary statistic for the technorati, as reported here in the Chronicle: 15% of Austin ISD high school students either have no computer or no Internet access at home. As this afternoon's Touring the Digital Divide panel proved, it's the same in New York and Vermont.

Metafilter moderator Jessamyn West called the typical non-user near her home in Orange County, Vermont (pop. c. 28,000) "Farmer Bob." However, the FCC defines four categories of people who don't have or use computers:

The digitally distant who just don't care.
The digital hopefuls who simply lack resources but may be nervy about technology.
The digitally uncomfortable who have been made afraid of the Internet by lack of experience or media scare stories.
Those without access either through location, language, poverty or another reason.

She laid out some pretty brutal stats for Orange County:
– 65% of seniors don't have Internet at home
– Residents with disabilities are one-third as likely to have Internet access as those without disabilities.
– Only 24% of residents without a high school diploma have Internet access.

Surprisingly, there are similar issues in New York City (pop. 8.4 million). The city libraries' Public Technology Training Coordinator Jenny Engstrom noted that, while broadband is available to 98% of residents, only half they city uses it. There are also huge differences between boroughs: The adoption rate in the Bronx is 20% lower than in Staten Island.

For people without a computer, access can be a nightmare: There are only 310 public access points in New York, and 212 are in public libraries. "[They're] the only game in town," she said, but with the anticipated budget shortfall, opening hours are likely to be sliced.

Sure, there are programs to get more computers into more libraries, but West called such corporate-sponsored initiatives often "Carnegie-style" donations (not least because the donors often get a healthy tax write-off.) She was also very concerned about who is studying the accessibility numbers, and added, "There are lot of people who tell you who's not on-line, but those people are normally selling you something."

The federal government is at least interested in mass access for less commercial reasons, and West compared their broadband initiative to compared the broadband process to the Rural Electrification Administration, which brought electricity to the counties.

The down side is that old bugbear: Bad design. Take It's a great money- and time-saver IF people use it, but some design issues could scare people into not using it. That's a particular problem in the current anti-DC political climate. When some users get a scary pop-up warning from their browser, "They don't know to trust," West said, "They've been taught not to trust They moved to Vermont for a reason."

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