Rose Afriyie from Feministing wants to know why, amid all the enthusiastic talk of “Gov 2.0″ under Obama, we’re not hearing about the “digital divide,” about which there used to be so much tearing of hair and rending of garments:
I, for one, am a little concerned that in all this technology talk, particularly with respect to government agencies moving information online, not a word was mentioned about the Digital Divide. It’s not news that low-income people of color and women are devastatingly impacted by decreased access to technology. But as states and state agencies experience budget constraints, activists must keep an eye out to insure that these creative measures are sensitive to the needs of these communities. Data consolidation is one thing, but how will “automated government services” impact consumers? More specifically, how much computer literacy will be needed to interact with these agencies? I’m not saying that agencies should stay in the Stone Age per se; But, before these agencies pull a George Jetson, they should assess the technological literacy of their communities through surveys or other methods. Also, they should use some of the savings from implementing these new high tech programs to invest in more free Wi-Fi hotspot locations and free technology education workshops–that run at night and provide childcare.
One reason might be that it’s hard to imagine the growth curve for Internet adoption being a whole lot steeper than it is. According to the most recent Pew survey, the percentage of adults in households with home broadband rose from 55% to 63% over the past year. As with adoption of all new technologies, lower income households are behind—but that just means they’re lagging by a few years on the same rapid growth trajectory. For households with annual incomes under $20,000, home broadband rose from 25% of households to 35% in 2009. That’s pretty similar to the curve we saw with television adoption, and if the trend from here roughly tracks TV, we should expect something damn near ubiquity within about five years, which is how long I’d expect it would take to get the kinks worked out of all these online government services anyway. And obviously, that doesn’t count all the people who don’t have broadband at home but have some other access—via work, friends, family, libraries, or cafes. (Also, the government just pumped $4 billion into “stimulating” broadband growth, with another #3 billion in the offing—although that money is, I think unwisely, focused on building pipe to underserved but sparsely populated rural areas rather than improving service and increasing uptake in cities.) All of which is to say, it would be mindbogglingly shortsighted to hold off on on rolling out Gov 2.0 services just because a target community might have low rates of Internet use today.
The same Pew survey suggests that a significant chunk of non–Internet users simply don’t see the value to them in getting online. (This is actually hard to disentangle from other reasons given: The claim that it’s too expensive or too much effort to acquire the skills is always implicitly relative to some expected benefit.) Without wanting to trivialize the very great advantage that comes from growing up in a computer-using household or having access to the Internet at school, I doubt most people need some kind of “Internet literacy” class at the community college to figure out how to use a Web browser. They need to see how it would actually benefit their lives enough to justify spending some time screwing around with one to learn how it works, maybe asking the neighbor kid for help as necessary. One of the best ways to ensure that members of disadvantaged communities get online is to make it clear that it’s worth their while to be there—by, say, increasing useful online access to important government services. You don’t need a high school diploma to understand Firefox, but if your education doesn’t qualify you for the sorts of office jobs where computer skills are required, it might not be clear why you should bother learning. Gov 2.0 might be one answer. Partly for that reason, surveys to assess the level of technological literacy in the community are likely to be worse than useless: The pace of change is too rapid for such metrics to be accurate for long anyway, and all the more when the community members’ motivation to become technologically literate is substantially affected by how much value these agencies are providing online.
There are also relatively few dimensions on which putting services online doesn’t make things easier for people with other barriers to access. Consider all the ways someone with a tough work schedule and limited education or language skills is better off, say, filling out an aid application online. Instructions can be provided in a wide array of languages, and if necessary in audio as well as text. Detailed explanations for potentially confusing form items can be provided a click away without cluttering the page. The form itself can, to some extent, check for errors or do necessary math. It can be accessed and submitted when the applicant finds it convenient, not just during business hours. And insofar as online access reduces the burden on the brick-and-mortar facilities, even those who don’t avail themselves of it directly should benefit. Again, it’s hard to imagine that the barriers to online access are actually going to be higher for disadvantaged users than the barriers to in-person, telephonic, or paper-and-pen access.
Instead of depriving people of all these benefits while they commission studies and convene working groups, agencies should hew to the motto “release early, release often.” The clearest evidence of the community’s needs will come from how and how much they interact with the agency online. The best means of ensuring that the community has the necessary technological literacy to do that is to provide something valuable enough to make it worth acquiring. And the best evangelists and teachers will be the early adopters.