In his Time Magazine Person of the Year interview, Barack Obama said “it turns out there’s some spending that has to be done on information technology, for example, that we can do very swiftly.”
If recent speeches by the new President are any sign, I sure hope he’s talking about rural broadband access. Like many others, I don’t think we can be complacent about America’s lagging IT infrastructure, and for a good many reasons.
Some aren’t so sure, however, at least about the rural part of that equation. My friend Adam Greenfield is a well-known advocate for humane connectedness through pervasive urban digital infrastructure (I know “advocate” is not the right word — Adam’s work is equal parts caution and possibility).
From near-term omnipresent wireless broadband to a futuristic cloud of RFID gizmos mediating our social and municipal interactions, the vision of living a seamless networked experience using benevolent technology seems both exciting and inevitable.
And, by all accounts, this will happen most noticeably using the city street as the primary test and launch platform. The urban environment is the easiest and most logical place to implement this vision since the â€œlast mileâ€ (moving information from the big pipes that cross the globe to the little pipes that lead into our homes and mobile devices) will always be an costly obstacle, and since so many people can be reached in a small physical area.
But another friend, David Sleight, opened my eyes to another perspective — the view from the country. Although David is currently a Manhattanite, his family roots are in the woods of upstate New York where for many the idea of getting even regular ol’ wired high speed access to the information superhighway is still an impossibility. David loves the country and would, all things being equal, prefer to live there, but for him urban living is quite simply a necessity for a career in the information and technology economy.
And all things simply aren’t equal.
Millions of Americans still live in rural environments where broadband Internet access is not even an option (except through unreliable and expensive satellite connections). Much of the nation is still unserved by 3G, Edge, or even mobile voice access at all. Living in the country pretty much excludes you from participation in the aforementioned technology economy.
So this is what I hope (and predict) Obama is talking about: Bringing the Internet — the *real* Internet, not the dial-up Web 1.0 of 1998 — to the millions of Americans currently living without it. I’m not just talking about high-bandwidth experiences like Flickr, YouTube, and Hulu. I’m talking about the less-glamourous low-bandwidth experiences that happen every day on the Internet: co-workers exchanging PowerPoint decks, transferring medical records to rural clinics and hospitals, downloading hundreds of emails from friends and family, people debating politics on blogs and message boards, or even just regular everyday surfing through dozens of websites without waiting endlessly for them to load.
Some will argue the current situation isn’t so bad given the disproportionally rural residency of our country when compared to broadband leaders like South Korea, Denmark, or Iceland. Some even argue that people in the country don’t really need or even want broadband access.
I don’t buy either of these arguments. I don’t think we should settle for inequality just because we’re a less urbanized nation than our global competitors. What’s more, I really don’t think people who lack access to technology have any idea about the user experience they are missing. It’s not like we’re talking about force feeding cable TV to the Amish here.
Some, like Adam, might say that people who choose to live in the country have by definition chosen to live a technologically backwards (and, importantly, increasingly unsustainable) existence. That the responsible and ethical choice for any modern human is to live somewhere easily and affordably accessible by wires and roads and mass transit (and food and water), in an economically-efficient and environmentally-benign way — i.e., what cities do best.
I find this argument immensely appealing. But I, too, happen to love oceans, forests, lakes, and mountains almost as much as I love the city. I often entertain a fantasy of living at least part of my life in a beautiful, remote rural setting. Perhaps this fantasy is selfish and wasteful, but I also wonder if ever information technology finally replaces the combustion engine as the primary medium of human economic activity could we not, in fact, flatten this ethical disparity a little and make rural life a little more appealing to those of us who want to leave a slighter carbon footprint?
Want vs. Need
Is supporting rural broadband, then, merely a way to make urbanists’ retirements more luxurious, or to explore an impossible utopian future? Is this a matter of want or need?
I’ve never thought that we should cease to push the boundaries of our science and technology in order to ensure that more down-to-earth and pressing needs are met. We need to find a cure for cancer and land a person on Mars, for example. They’re both noble goals.
And although I am deeply critical of its implementation, I never really opposed the One Laptop Per Child project on principle, nor did I ever think that the money would be better spent directly on food or medicine. We need both experimental and conventional programs.
Broadband for rural America should be seen as a “great work” project, like the Internet itself, whose benefits may take years to be fully realized.
In short, we should be investing in technology for everyone, in cities and provinces. Clearly we should pursue subsidized free public WiFi for densely concentrated urban areas, transit systems, and public facilities — it’s the cheapest way per capita to bring our citizens and our economy to where they inevitably want and need to be. But we should also invest in the likely-far-costlier enterprise of bringing broadband and digital cellular access to people in the country: those who can’t walk to a corner Starbucks, who don’t ride a subway, and who can’t possibly use some cool iPhone app to find a great Korean barbecue only a few blocks away.
So why do this? Well, most convincingly there is the economic argument: Can it hurt to have tens of millions more people shopping online, consuming online media, opening vast opportunities for information and education and, most importantly, enabling millions to participate in a future of information-based labor through rurally-situated technology industries, telecommuting and self-employment? Can one argue against having as many people (Americans, if you’re patriotic :-) ) as possible learning to use and navigate what will undoubtedly be the primary medium for any future world economy?
This is a matter of global competitiveness. America has fallen from 4th to 17th in the world in broadband penetration. The US began our critical interstate highway system in the 1950s — 20 years after Germany began building their autobahn network. We shouldn’t once again wait until we are two decades behind to do this.
Beyond of the plain economics of it, I also can’t help but to advocate this idea as a matter of sociopolitical principal: It does harm to the group psyche to perpetuate a have/have not culture, where one cohort is participating in the emerging cultural and economic hegemony and another is excluded. The free market alone cannot make this happen any more than it could bring about universal education, the interstate highway system, or the Internet. This will take government action.
But it’s more than a simple question of fairness to me. As long as rural America is kept in the slow lane with respect to access to information and culture, the more they will feel isolated and resentful of the mainstream “connected culture”, viewing them, incorrectly, as out of touch elites. They will then, I fear, vote regressively and conservatively. I’ll admit this thinking may be a matter of unjustified faith in certain (liberal) ideals, but I actually believe that exposure to diverse ideas and people, combined with full and equal participation in a healthy economy, produces, in general, increased social tolerance, better education, and cultural and intellectual progress. Wisdom, peace, and prosperity through connectedness.
Perhaps best of all, wouldn’t broadband for the sticks enable an actual reversal of the polarization of our culture, ending the “The Big Sort” phenomenon where conservatives and liberals are increasingly locating themselves in self-segregated homogenous counties. Hell, decent Internet access might make life in the country attractive to snobby urban sophisticates who might otherwise find the boondocks economically and culturally untenable. If I can meet city clients online and connect with city friends online, why do I need to live in the city?
Ultimately if you like to walk to the store to buy food, if you like bright lights and hustle and bustle, if you enjoy bumping into hundreds of interesting and diverse people every day, then no amount of broadband access will draw you from your urban world. You can certainly count me in that camp. But I can’t bring myself to simply write off non-urban America to a life of electronic destitution and information poverty — their deprivation does affect my happiness. We’re all too closely connected to let the digital divide continue to grow.