Hi thanks for having me, I'll be sharing some tips and advice about working with people who are stuck in the digital empowerment divide. The notes and slides for this talk, along with image credits and a few links for more information are at the URL here.
So I'm Jessamyn West and, among other things, I've had a library blog for the past 20 years or so. I only mention that because I work, daily, with people who still aren't quite sure what blogs are, why they might matter, or why anyone should care. Same with social media. Same with the internet in general. And while their opinions might not be my opinions, they're my neighbors and we all have things we bring to the table of our community, and it's always important that i keep that in mind so I figured it wouldn't help to pass that along here as well.
When I went to library school it was IN the library school, straddling the time before and after the graphical web. This was GREAT for me, a sort of tech-positive librarian in training, because there was nothing I wanted to do more than help people use technology. I figured my job would be helping people learn email and that sort of thing for a few years then *everyone would know email* and then we could get to more important things like digital privacy and safety, building cool tools and getting people to use them. I was a VISTA volunteer at Seattle Public helping people learn to use technology, but I really wanted to live in the country. Eventually I moved there.
I've been in Vermont since 1999 and I love it here. But I did learn an important thing, or a few things. The first is that if you want to work with computers all the time, a rural library job isn't quite right for you. There is computer work in the library, but there is a lot of other work as well, not all of it is my speed. The other thing is that, unsurprisingly, librarians in rural areas aren't necessarily that tech savvy themselves. This is highly variable, but one of the hardest lessons for me to learn is that digitally divided might apply to library workers as well as patrons. The good news is that this means there are a lot of ways for me to help out. Right now I'm helping move our ~300-ish member state library association over to membership software, from a frightening excel spreadsheet. I have a very particular set of skills that makes me good at this. I have a lot of jobs now, but I do fill in at my local library usually when someone is sick or on vacation. This is it in the photo. That is jam for sale at the reference/circ desk and a conscience box (we don't have fines). And it's 2020, and I'm still waiting for that glorious future where everyone knows how to use email…..
The main thing I do for a job is called, boringly enough, drop-in time, it's a free service where I hang out (one day at the library, one day at the local tech center, do you have those? vocational education?) and help people with tech problems first come first served. I've been doing it for over fifteen years. In the last few years I've started tweeting the stories of what I help people with. (link on the links page) and I learned the most important thing about the digital divide, it's often invisible to people who don't experience it or its fallout. So if you have a smart phone, you may misremember how much more work it was to do all the tasks the smart phone helped you with. And while this may just be an empathy lesson, if you're someone who designs smartphones, or apps, or web forms or whatever, it could really matter. You may not know what it's like to use a laptop with a shaky hand (where every click counts) or with low vision (so grey text on black is invisible, as is any text under about 12 pixels) because this description doesn't fit you or, possibly, anyone you know. The thing people say when they say that diversity makes us smarter? This is just one (of many) examples of why this is true.
So back to the general idea about the digital divide. I have a bunch of google alerts set for this phrase and you see it less and less used by practitioners like us and more and more by cable companies who like to say they've solved it. OK then. This is my three minute history of the general use of the term/concept. First, the issue was primarily money, people literally could not afford a computer which could cost a thousand dollars or more. Well hey in libraries we fixes that, now over 95% of Americans have free access to a computer at their library. Then the issue was internet, people couldn't get internet access. This is a little trickier because there's the question of whether that is a "can't" thing or a "won't" thing. And it's wrapped up in the first issue. People are more likely to sign up for broadband that is inexpensive, and yet the FCC has been fickle in helping make broadband one of their "lifeline" options for people (see later slide for info about phone service vs broadband). In the middle we can wedge usability. I spend a lot of time helping people's confidence in drop-in time by telling them "You are not bad at computers, this is a bad website" because how would they know otherwise? This merges into the empowerment or readiness divide. People don't see themselves in online spaces and don't feel that they can inhabit those spaces without help, training, assistance or… something.
Pew Research has looked into this. Why are people still offline and not engaging with tools that might otherwise make their lives easier (cheaper products, less driving, more connections, more information - caveat about being offline being a valid choice IF you know the limitations)? And they came up with this simple formula, people need a combination of skills (clicking the mouse, or whatever) and the trust in… the process, the system, whatever the thing is, that they understand it enough to be interactive with it. I sort of gloss this as being "up for it." and this is where we can help the most. In terms of readiness I think there are a few major things we can do to help people, based on my own experiences. Here are some questions we can help people with.
This is at its most basic but sometimes people need help with this.
Specifically once we as library people know that poverty is one of the things that aggravates the digital divide, we have a responsibility to help. The digital divide, like poverty, lives in pockets. And just like poverty can't be simply solved with money (though it sure helps) the digital divide is not just solved by giving people low-cost laptops and internet service, though that also helps. People who are offline often don't know people who ARE happily online and don't have a framework to get themselves online. Know what people's local options are, help them navigate them. Often low-cost internet access for low income people is only available to people who haven't had internet before, not someone who lost their internet because they couldn't pay a bill. People, understandably, get frustrated and give up, help them get re-connected.
In many cases, advertising pushes people to just do everything with their smartphone. This is (often) more money for big companies (as compared to a shareable service like fixed broadband at home). But smartphones aren't computers. Users have less privacy (all traffic goes through corporate servers), less flexible (you can only use or install some apps) and less access (bandwidth caps are much lower). Plus they DON'T EVEN WORK in many places (my house). So while smartphones are certainly good for many things, they're more for people passively interacting with content (ie. reading) and not building their own tools.
Next, the key to the empowerment divide which is finding your people, whoever they are, and not just taking whatever's popular as the sum total of what is "online" You all probably know this, but a novice internet user (people can still be novices even if they've spent a lot of time online being passive consumers) may not know enough to find their people or their space. For me, a lot of the trick in drop-in time is finding something that will catch people's interest and get them to want to explore more. Maybe that's an aerial picture of their house, maybe it's a YouTube video of tractor engines.
Because, look, these internet ads are dumb, Many people look at this and think "I don't want that for my family, everyone's glued to their screens" (except the mom patiently wishing for a return to the good old days, or maybe she's waiting for lunch) and that may be more of the internet interactions that they see if they are in digitally divided communities. So help counter this narrative.
One example. Most of the people in my town don't use twitter. Maybe ten people do who I know about. However, when I ask people in drop-in time if they've heard of it, they have similar responses, often. "Why do I care what someone had for breakfast?" (they say the same about facebook) Where is this coming from? Partly from "old"media, but also partly because the default view of these tools is geared towards celebrity, conflict, and popularity. So Twitter looks a lot different if you just follow who they tell you to follow (for me? all these white guys….) and better if you help people find the people who share their values, or who look like them (I noticed some of you are working with Native populations, my favorite Native tweeter is Waubgeshig Rice, he's Canadian, Big Indian Gyasi is another). Sometimes if you can do the work to help people "find their people" they can get engaged enough to do the work to learn the tools.
The toughest thing for me, in all of this, is to help people enough to get them going but also make sure they're gaining the skills and knowledge to do things themselves. Because, realistically, some people may always need some amount of help. But most people will, with assistance, be able to help themselves. So figuring out other people in people's support networks can be a necessary part of having enough resources for you to help people who need helping. In drop-in time sometimes I just coach people to make tech support calls, or send them links to help files they can read to solve their problems, we google topics together to see if we can fix them, I try, very hard, to always let them "drive" and we celebrate every accomplishment they have because building confidence is part of this job.
And you, you all, are helping. This is a quotation from one of the best teaching tools I know, a small web page written in 1996 by a computer scientist named Phil Agre who has remarkable insight into helping people with technology. And honestly I'm always tempted when I give talks to just send this link around and start and stop with "Read this. It's all correct. Questions?" but in short, this part.One of the other "features" of drop in time is that it's first come first served and often there are many people at a time.I've found that the interactions other people—many of whom know each other because it's a small town and we're all neighbors—are useful in their own ways. People look at me sometimes as if I have all the answers, that maybe there's something genetic about me that makes me good with this ("I don't have a local family," I remind them, "And I grew up with this stuff") and when they see their friends and neighbors also learning, moving through the process, making progress, they feel that they can do it too.
I know it's a little "meta" but part of this process is also sharing these stories. I share mine with you and vice versa, also helping people tell their own stories and use this technology (if they want to) to be creative, interactive, curious and expressive. I get on twitter to share these stories because I think it can help other people solve problems (more empathy for people building tech never hurts); I also encourage people to share what they know with their communities, learn how to take control of their tech world, be resourceful, solve problems and view their tech environment as a tool for living, not as an insurmountable obstacle.
that web address again is here, do what you can to help dismantle white supremacy in libraries. Questions? Thank you.
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