Geography is Destiny

I vividly remember a physician friend of mine, Dr. Karen Hein, saying that, for AIDS, asthma and other health problems, geography was destiny.  She meant that poverty and the problems associated with it were key determinants of health.  Poor people got the short end of the stick: less access to preventive care, more diseases, and fewer resources to help them recover.Geography is destiny

Now a new report sponsored by the Knight Foundation suggests that geography is also destiny for our democracy. The just-released report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age,” suggests that we now have what it calls ‘second class information citizenship.’

Many of us suffer from information overload, but some communities—geography again–have a very different problem: not enough information and insufficient skills to separate the wheat from the chaff.

In an era when many of us are embracing Twitter, Facebook and other ‘virtual communities,’ we may think that walls are breaking down everywhere, but this report tells us that real (geographic) communities matter more than virtual ones. Technology itself is inherently democratic—a computer doesn’t know (or care) whether you are rich or poor; able-bodied or not; black, white or brown—but access to technology is a different kettle of fish.  Who has access to technology is crucial—and access often comes down to geography. Some have more access to better information, meaning they are better equipped to participate in the digital revolution we are in right now.  Others are being left behind—and it’s based on geography.

Marissa Mayer, a vice president at Google and co-chair of the commission, told the San Jose Mercury-News that geographic communities are critical regardless of income.  People spend 70% of their money within five miles of their homes, she said.  And even if you spend hours on Twitter, My Space and Facebook, you live in the real world, meaning that, when you need someone to fix the sink, repair your car or educate your children, you find these things near your home. Moreover, we elect officials to govern us by geography and pay taxes based on geography.

“In the end, our democracy is structured geographically,” Mayer said. “People don’t realize how much they’re centered around their home.”

Maybe so, but the economically advantaged use technology to leave their geographical boundaries behind, while the poor don’t.

Here I hold the schools responsible, because it’s not just a matter of who has broadband and who doesn’t. The report points out a huge gap in the skills and experience needed to take advantage of the benefits of digital communications.  That’s where the attitude of the adults in schools is crucial.  In my experience as a reporter, even when schools in poor areas do have access to modern technology, the technology is generally used to control kids. That is, technology is done to poor kids—they go to computer labs to do vocabulary and math drills on the computer.  Meanwhile, the affluent are allowed and encouraged to use the technology to create, to cross boundaries, and to grow. They’re making videos with footage from partners in schools all over the world. They’re comparing rates of precipitation in a dozen countries.  And so on.

One Laptop Per ChildTechnology doesn’t recognize walls, but people do. Kids in the nastiest places imaginable can be connected to youth in Scarsdale, Palo Alto and prosperous communities in India, Japan and the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, often the adults in charge accept limits and abide by borders.   When they do that, they are making certain that geography is digital destiny, and that’s unfair, immoral and counter-productive.

One reason I am so proud of Listen Up!, our project that trains less advantaged kids in media, is its unwavering commitment to access. We believe that everyone has something to say, but we recognize that less advantaged youth may need help in articulating their ideas and in using modern tools to craft their message. Listen Up! has been doing this work for 11 years in about 160 communities worldwide.

In an ideal world, schools recognize their obligation to be digital enablers.  When will that be?

12 thoughts on “Geography is Destiny

  1. While I agree, John, that it seems technology is used differently in poorer schools, may I suggest that it’s not used all that effectively in most schools. I was just talking with a colleague about the commitment to open-ended inquiry [that certainly is enhanced by the open access to technology] in gifted / talented classrooms, I was told that they too are not using the technology to its full potential.

    In all cases, if there were school activities that promoted creativity and motivation [made so much richer due to technology], the effective learning [and improved mastery test scores by the way] would be managed by the students themselves.


  2. I like the idea in the ideal sense. Isn’t there a guy named Negroponte or something like that who was developing the $100 laptop?

    Continue the blog. I am sure it will prompt some great ideas.

    [Edited by Moderator]


    • @ Thomas: Negroponte’s project you mention is called One Laptop Per Child and was a really innovative approach to democratizing access to technology. It had some bumps and starts, but overall is a great program (the laptop is featured in the second picture in this post!). You can learn more about it here:


  3. I’m really happy you’re starting this conversation here John. As you know, I used to work for you and was inspired to go into teaching media production in several after school programs in NYC. I’ve since moved on to study media and education at MIT.

    It’s definitely about more than just access. On one hand, there’s the issues of maintenance and keeping up to date. I’ve seen way too many classrooms with broken computers lining the walls or software so old or slow, students might as well do their work with pencil and paper. On the other hand, even when there is up-to-date hardware and software, teachers aren’t sure where to start with it or it’s so restricted that students are shut off from incredible resources that will help them develop the 21st century learning skills they need to succeed in the future.

    My research group in grad school, Project New Media Literacies, has looked to the amazing work that students are doing outside of school – making remixes, modding video games, shooting fanvids, etc – as models for the kind of creative and collaborative work that should be going on inside of school. Don’t get me wrong though, there are many teachers trying to innovate in the classrooms as well, but they need more support from administrators to allow them to integrate technology and new media literacies into every part of the school day.

    I hope you keep asking questions in this area. I think its a crucial topic for us to be thinking about not only here in the US, but globally as well.


  4. There is a public school on our island who has a benefactor, and also gets federal money because it is located in the vicinity of ordinance activity (?) -there’s supposed to be a potential danger that they COULD find unexploded bombs there, for some reason. Anyways, they have loads of money. Our school recently borrowed one of their mobile labs and come to find out it had never even been used! It seems that they have way more technology than they use. Our neighboring intermediate school has smartboards that were purchased with leftover renovation money. Only 1 teacher actually uses it, and there may be 4 that are unused. He and I joke that he could probably sneak it over to my school and no one would miss it. I even have a class set of palm pilots that I don’t use. These are not easy to incorporate into the daily life of the class, and I have had minimal training. Even the teachers who were more extensively trained do not use them once the grant they were trained under was over. My point – it can’t be technology for technology sake. It has to be meaningful, and therein lies the rub. What is meaningful? I agree with John Bennett, if creativity and innovation were the focus, rather than test scores, you would see more professional development and thoughtfulness put into technology. Once we get off that testing train that is leading towards a train wreck, we can fly with the eagles with the technology. Pardon the silly metaphors, I am a bit giddy with some kind of stomach ailment.


  5. You raise a most important point, and one that we’ve been thinking about a great deal over at Teacher Leader Network lately as we ponder the future of teaching. Technology, in and of itself, will not eliminate inequity or lower expectations; those things may simply be transferred to a different platform. We have many tools available to us to expand the learning opportunities of all children. Not all of us yet have the will or the skill to use them toward that end.


  6. I was just showing part of an A& E biography on Andrew Carnegie and I was taken in by two facts. One, Carnegie was not from the lowest and least well educated classes of Scotland. His father was a very skilled craftsman who was an expert at weaving blankets, linen and tartans in the traditional manner. Carnegie’s father never embraced change and died fairly young in America leaving Andrew as sole support of his mother at age 18. The other point was that Carnegie was really a master of applying all the new technologies. He was for example one of the very first telegraph operators to be so skilled as to instantly interpret the messages so that he could use the telegraph like we use chatting or instant messages. Then he was one of the first factory owners to use telephones to communicate with all his factories and within his factories. I could go on and on.

    But of course the most interesting thing about Carnegie was his lifelong interest in culture and education. Other wealthy men collected art work or built mansion but Carnegie collected writers, thinkers and teachers and books. He wanted common people to have free access to books and he remembered how he deeply resented that ordinary citizens were not allowed into private libraries and private parks. Every museum, every library associated with Carnegie were meant to be accessible to the public. And I think libraries and schools must play a key role in keeping access to technology open to everyone in the community. At my school we have evening tutoring -I just came back from a 630pm 800 Pm session and we have evenings when our computer labs are open to the parents and family members of our students.

    We are truly in a critical period of American history, in my opinion. If we do not improve our education performance and the work ethic of the youth we could rapidly slip into what some have called the Argentina-ization of America. That means a slow descent into financial bankruptcy and impotency as a world nation. No longer will we benefit from the brain drain. The smart will return to their home countries and out smart us even more and eventually even our institutions of higher learning will dry up do to lack of funds. We are foolish if we think we are immune to the ills that have destroyed nations and empires before us.

    [Edited by Moderator]


  7. School library media teachers teach critical thinking about information and provide access to information, and yet this profession is becoming extinct in states like California where companies like Google are headquartered. Where are our budgeting priorities when it comes to this issue? Why is it so much easier to spend money on computers than on the very people whose job it is to teach students how to use them in ethical, effective, and creative ways? In California the student/school librarian ratio is approximately 1:5,000, 51st in the nation (includes D.C.). For more information on this important issue check out this article


  8. John is correct when he says that not even the well-to-do kids necessarily get to use technology creatively. I agree with Diane and Renee that we have to change our priorities and encourage creativity and inquiry. Tom, I think cellphones are replacing computers as the technology of choice in remote places.


  9. Nice post on a different take about the digital divide. I am researching a 1:1 high school and the points made give me pause in what I see.


  10. It is about time someone pointed all of this out…as far as I am concerned, it is basic sociological thinking. The computer doesn’t make magic…what people do with the computer is what counts. Geography IS critical and just imposing technology on a school is pointless unless there is a support system to absorb the technology into the everyday life of the users. I also believe the cell phone is the real democratizer…easier to use, open for everyone, and not a geographical obstruction. Doesn’t everyone get it?


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