Rochelle has just given a great example about why the digital divide and technology skills are so damned important. How do you choose one of the over sixty Medicare prescription drug plans? By typing in all of your prescription information into a complicated buggy jargon-filled web page of course.
I’m back from Tucson/Phoenix. I had a great time getting to spend the day with the students and faculty of the University of Arizona School of Information Resources and Library Science. I gave a variant of my digital divide talk The Information Poor & the Information Don’t Care Small Libraries and the Digital Divide (the notes look the same but all the talks are really really different). While I was in Arizona I also got to see the downtown branch of the Phoenix Public Library, the North Valley Regional Library (my first big suburban library!) and the Tucson Pima Public Library. I also did a quick walk around the University of Arizona library but got quickly distracted by the amazing art exhibit Reading Our Remains (waxed and sliced books, fascinating) and didn’t take a lot of other pictures.
This is the talk I gave this evening: The Information Poor & the Information Don’t Care: Small Libraries and the Digital Divide. Thanks very much to all who attended, it was a fun talk and you have a lovely library.
“The Information Poor and the Information Don’t Care: Small Libraries and the Digital Divide” Wednesday, October 26, 2005 from 7 PM to 8:30PM, San Jose, King Library, room 225b. Can’t come, listen to me streaming live and [maybe] answering questions asked via IM.
Please enjoy these data excerpts from the recent Pew report on the Digital Divide in the United States.
68% of adults use the Internet, 32% do not. Sometimes this lack of use is by choice and sometimes it isn’t.
73% of adults live in a household with an Internet connection and 27% do not.
22% of adults have never used the Internet and do not have access in their homes.
38% of adults living with disabilities have access to the Internet.
22% of adults over 70 have Internet access whereas 53% of adults between 60 and 69 have access.
11% of Internet non-users say that getting access is too difficult, frustrating or expensive.
The Pew survey splits Internet users into three general groups: cold, tepid and hot. Hot users are engaged with the Internet, they use it at home, they use fast connections. They are likely to be under 50, and college graduates. They can get online when they need to and are comfortable in the online world. Cold users are the 22% who have never used the Internet, they are often have a high school education or less, and they are often over 65. They would have trouble getting online if they needed to. Tepid users account for 40% of Internet users in the US. They usually either have a slow connection, or no regular connection, are generally younger than the “cold” users, and could go online if they really needed to.
I’m in the process of putting together a talk that I’m giving at SJSU on the 26th, so I’m sure I’ll be mulling these answers over quite a bit in the near future — there are more tidbits that outline race vs connectivity in ways that are fascinating — but these are just to toss out for people who may not want to read the whole report.
The digital divide, in the US is driven by the market. If there were a way to sell eyeballs to advertisers using the public library, there would be one on every corner. If there were a way to get people to subscribe to the library and make money for McDonalds, Wal-Mart or Chevron [or, more realistically Time Warner, Gannett and Warner Brothers], everyone would have a card. If there were real competition in the OPAC marketplace, if switching OPACs was simple, if start-up costs weren’t so high, OPACs would be better, scads better.
People value access to information but many people don’t know how or where to start.
Once you own a TV you know how to watch TV. The same is not true for a computer. Once you have a TV you get programming for free — though they are changing that rapidly. The same is not true for a computer, the Internet costs money above and beyond technology costs. Once you have a TV you become a passive audience for advertising as well as content. The same is not true for a computer — no matter how hard advertisers try to make it otherwise. Competition for advertising dollars drives up the “interestingness” of television programming. Competition for advertising drives down the usability of free services which are often the only option for people with limited resources. The public library drops the ball in ways on computer and Internet access and user education, sure. I think they’re missing an opportunity to serve a genuine community need, one that I see in my job every single day.
I don’t think this is because patrons are choosing television over the library any more that I think that people “choose” to rent their furniture instead of own it, or “choose” to stay in New Orleans instead of evacuate. I think people choose non-library options because we don’t see the same investment in libraries that we do in media infrastructure. There is investment in the television infrastructure, in many many ways, through regulations favorable to the networks, through infrastructure support for broadcasting at a national level, through plain old corporate welfare that makes big media conglomerates pay less in taxes than I do. If libraries had that sort of money, you’d probably see them becoming public access computing centers — in addition to all of their other roles — because that’s what people want.
As a nation we don’t prioritize library service. As individuals many people make choices to not GO to the public library, and don’t interact with the public generally. I chose to live and work in Vermont specifically because people like me are a dime a dozen in Seattle, and in San Francisco, and probably in Brooklyn, but out here, my level of expertise is unusual, and it helps people. I use my public library even though I guess I could technically “afford” not to. I work with the information poor even though my level of education and experience means I don’t “have” to.
The so-called digital divide, in the US, is one driven by values. If people valued access to seek-it-yourself information, to email, to the internet in the same way that they clearly value access to network TV, I doubt there would be a digitial divide. The DD, simplistically, is a clash of values between what librarians think people want and need and what people opt to spend time and dollars on.
It’s always hard when paradigms shift, and harder still when people who should be working together to help people grapple with them can’t even agree on what needs to be done. Worse yet when those rifts seem to happen along philosopher/practitioner lines as they so often do. I feel that this is like watching agribusiness get a strong foothold, and watching the local Grange slowly die out. I’m backing artisan and organic food solutions in my boutiquey testbed of Orange County Vermont, call me when they get cell phone service here.
Both talks went well today. One was in the morning to an undergraduate information science class. High point: mentioning something about gopher sites and realizing that the students in the class were 7 years old when gopher was popular. The afternoon talk was larger, maybe 50 people, and may be available in streaming video one of these days. You can read all the notes from my talk here.