Here Comes Not Quite Everybody

It is a cliché that the Internet connects everyone, so it probably has escaped consciousness that many actually cannot afford the high-speed service the rest of us now take for granted.  They are being bypassed.

Susan Crawford, a professor at New York’s Cardozo law school, recently called attention to our “digital divide.”  “If you were white, middle-class and urban, the Internet was opening untold doors of information and opportunity. If you were poor, rural or a member of a minority group, you were fast being left behind.”

The U.S. Department of Commerce pointed out, for example, “a mere 4 out of every 10 households with annual household incomes below $25,000 in 2010 reported having wired Internet access at home.”  Moreover, “only slightly more than half of all African-American and Hispanic households (55 percent and 57 percent, respectively)” have it, compared with 72 percent of whites.  (See The New York Times,The New Digital Divide.”)

It’s not just a question of convenient, quick shopping or entertainment – though it is also about that.  Increasingly medical services, employment information and job interviews, education, and access to vital career information depend on high speed Internet connectivity.  In the future more and more essential services will depend on it.

Most of us just absorb the increasing expense, but America is 12th among developed nations for wired Internet access, held down by monopolistic practices, the lack of incentive to wire rural markets, and the virtual absence of regulation – all hallmarks of the political and economic policies that discount the role of government and favor the wealthy.  The poor rely more and more on smart phones, but their capacity to carry large amounts of data is restricted.  They may tell you where your kids are, but they’re not equivalent to computers.

In the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, the U.S. government heavily subsidized postal rates so that newspapers and magazines vital to the development of democracy could be cheaply distributed.  Those services are now being cut back, partly of course because the Internet is a more efficient way to do those jobs.  But it is not doing the same job if it doesn’t reach more citizens.

Democracy depends on economic opportunity or it will atrophy.  This is yet another way in which the poor are dropping out of our collective consciousness, no longer able to participate in our economy and, as a result, disenfranchised.

Mesmerized by out technological marvels and gargets, we are in danger of failing to notice that fewer and fewer among us are still playing.