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.
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.
Technology 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?