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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Bridging the Digital Divide

There has been a lot of attention paid lately to class inequality in our society. Instead of focusing just on income disparity, though, it helps to look also at factors that contribute to it. One of those, as pointed out by Susan P. Crawford in a recent New York Times editorial, is Internet access.

Crawford makes the point that activities such as job searching, health care, education, commerce, and communication are increasingly moving or, in some cases, have already moved online. For the 200+ million Americans with high-speed Internet access at home, that increasing menu of opportunities is fully available. Those with slow or no connections, however, are likely to fall behind.

The problem is that, in most cases, those without high-speed Internet access are already behind. As Crawford notes, just 40% of households with an annual income below $25,000 have high-speed access. And it’s not solely a case of being unable to afford it; for many, the current U.S. Internet infrastructure simply does not reach them. Cable companies that provide the majority of Internet access often don’t serve rural areas, for instance—the companies don’t want to make the investment necessary to reach areas that provide so few customers. Residents of these areas must make do with slower dial-up, satellite, or wireless connections, if they have any at all.

The solution for many, of course, is the public library. Unfortunately, as Crawford again points out, this is only a partial solution. “Nearly half of librarians say that their connections are insufficient to meet patrons’ needs. And it is hard to imagine conducting [an online] job interview in a library.”

Of course, even at this late date, some question whether the ubiquity of the Internet is a good thing. In another New York Times editorial, Quentin Hardy makes the claim that the Internet is “ruining everything.” The gist of his argument is that the vast array of voices on the Internet, from experts and non-experts, makes it hard to discern what information is useful and what information is not. I would also point out that information on the Internet can also be elusive—a link that works one day may disappear the next, making it difficult or impossible to find what you’re looking for or even prove it existed in the first place.

However, the horse is out of the barn, so to speak, and it seems unlikely that Internet usage will be scaling back anytime soon. In fact, more and more people are coming to rely on it for such tasks as, oh, let’s say…Christmas shopping? This year’s “Cyber Monday” (the Monday following Thanksgiving) was “the biggest day for online shopping in U.S. history” at $1.3 billion in sales (up 22% from 2010).1 Even as so many decry the decline of “brick and mortar” stores, the convenience of online shopping is seemingly winning over more and more people (or at least their dollars) each year. It should be noted, though, that Black Friday sales increased 6.6% this year to $11.4 billion, so brick and mortar advocates can perhaps breathe a sigh of relief on that score.2

Has there been an increase in patrons using the Internet access at your library? What types of online activities do patrons engage in? What can be done to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity for access as more and more services move online? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.

1 http://www.thestreet.com/story/11328764/1/cyber-monday-2011-sets-shopping-record.html
2 http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/money_co/2011/11/black-friday-sales-rise-66.html

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