Dare I say it--Newt might have had a point. He suggested, in 1994, flush from the big wins that gave the Republicans the majority, that maybe we should just give welfare recipients laptops to get them rolling into the Information Age. Though wacky on the face of it, it's a direction we should be considering.
The city of Baltimore (where I live), is planning to spend $55,000,000 (while coincidentally cutting $16,000,000 from the city education budget) over two years widening a seven mile, three-lane segment of the "beltway" around the city to become four lanes. It will choke the beltway traffic for two years, costing who knows how much in loss of productivity, lost sleep, and lateness to work. And resulting eventually in a little extra speed around the beltway. In two years.
In two years, digital tools will be twice as powerful at half the price--following Moore's law, that microprocessors double in power every 18 months (this has proven true for the last twenty years, by the way), while also following the trend of dramatic drops in price.
So in a year, the City of Baltimore might identify 36000 commuters who could telecommute, and buy each of these people a computer which today would be around $3000. By waiting another year, it might be 72,000 machines. That might cut the traffic pretty substantially.
I'm not really suggesting that Baltimore stop its highway-building program--I'm sure a lot of it is federal and state money, and there are plenty of favors owed which laptop-buying wouldn't pay off. Another drawback is that by focusing on telecommuters, we would be benefitting the well-off knowledge workers rather than those truly in need. But the numbers begin to make sense, once you assume that a reasonably high proportion of the working people could perform part or half or all of their job at home, if properly networked.
Why don't we consider digital infrastructure in the same way we consider the physical infrastructure--highways, bridges, sewage, water, power? Why don't we start planning on a digital infrastructure and pushing forward as communities to make sure we have a human-centered digital environment?
We currently have a mix of toll roads, freeways, Interstates, and dirt county roads, depending on the necessary uses and funding choices the communities make. Some cities have private power, others have state non-profit power districts, still others have a mix. At every level, there is an agreement by the state and local governments to allow access to public land to utilities--electrical and gas lines in the sewers, right-of-way and eminent domain along the roads, etc.--in exchange for the benefit that these utilities have for the community itself.
Before the telecom bill, an agreement between the cable-TV operators and the government provided limited, regulated monopolies to cable companies in every community. In exchange for this monopoly (and rights to put up the cable), cable companies were required to provide at least one community access channel, and the hardware, staff, and facilities to make community access TV shows. Often the result was embarassing, but more than a few delights resulted. Perhaps we should require that digital providers--cable, telephone, power, etc.--devote 20% or more of their bandwidth to public-value digital infrastructure. Or perhaps we should require that at least 20% of the telecommunications fiber pulled in a city be pulled in a low-income area.
Something like this will need to be done. For the last ten years, I've been watching the rise of a schism in our society. That old song line that "the rich get rich and the poor get poorer," is not only true, but is getting truer. And worse, the rich are finding it easier to get rich, and the poor are finding themselves increasingly incapable of becoming not poor. What's been happening over the last ten years is a change in what's possible for the underclass--the degree of exclusion that the underclass experience.
I recently read two tremendous books: If You Came This Way: A Journey through the Lives of the Underclass, by Peter Davis, and Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of the Nation, by Jonathan Kozol. Both gave witness (in detailed, painful narratives) to the hopelessness of entrenched poverty.
There in Bloomington, you don't see it. It's a college town, in a relatively prosperous agricultural state. Yes, there are poor people, but you don't see them much. Reading this mag, it's almost certain that you're rich enough to buy yourself a latte pretty much any time you want, and probably have been relatively safe--physically and financially--most of your life.
The political discourse, since Reagan came to power, has become one of "secular Calvinism," as Unitarian minister Matthew McNaught so perceptively named it. Calvin believed that the blessed were made rich by God, and that conversely the poor were obviously sinners, and thus it was Just that they suffered.
These days we hear a perverse secular version of this. We blame the poor for being poor, and then punish them for it. We call them "lazy," "welfare kings and queens," and say that "they could get a job if they only wanted one." We trumpet the one-in-1000 who pulled themselves out of the ghetto, or out of a gang, or out of Appalachia, while forgetting that 999 couldn't. Congress resists raising the minimum wage (you try running even a one-child family on as much as five dollars an hour--a hundred thirty-some take-home a week--with any degree of grace. It can't be done), and then cuts the funding for social programs that might provide child care, literacy programs, or health care for the underclass, not to mention Head Start, or nutritional assistance. We condemn and fear the underclass for their differentness (watch what happens when a member of the underclass enters an elevator full of the well-off), and then tell them that it's their responsibility to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or to teach their children the values of capitalism, and democracy, and freedom, when they're poor and voiceless and imprisoned by poverty.
Though I don't want to turn this into a jeremiad about governmental heartlessness, the problem supports the point I'm coming to: that the gap between the rich and poor is already large, and the trend is being replayed more purely as the Information Age tide begins to rise. The gap between the technologically literate and illiterate is growing ever larger. This is exceedingly dangerous, and needs to be addressed quickly, if we're to make any change in the trend.
The only mechanism to change this trend is the government. The "private sector" isn't going to do it fast enough. You may remember that in March, the government unemployment statistics showed a take-Wall-Street-by-surprise decline in joblessness. Wall Street responded with a precipitous 130-plus point Dow Jones plunge.
Business capital wants a large number of unemployed. A sufficient number of poor, desperate people keeps wages low, especially for low-skill jobs, thus keeping profits high. This is just good business.
Good business it may be, but it's neither smart in the long term nor morally right. When a decrease in human suffering is met with discouragement by the market, your eyebrows should rise in concern if not surprise.
This also makes me certain that there will be no hurry from the telcos, the line-pullers, or the cable companies to pull ISDN or fiber through the South Bronx, or Cabrini Green, or east LA, to enable fast connections to the information environment. The underclass will be the last served, if they're served at all, by the private market. Why run the cable in, if there aren't going to be many buyers? Besides, isn't it dangerous?
Currently 1/3 of the households in this country have an income of less than $20,000. A quarter are under $16,000. You can't buy a computer on that unless you're really committed, because your kids need clothes, and food, and you've got to pay for the bus to work because you can't afford a car and insurance. You won't be able to pay $25/month for a cable modem, or to an Internet Service Provider. You haven't got the money to buy software upgrades, or new software or hardware tools. It would seem as distant to buy a computer as to buy a Lexus.
Catching the underclass up with the Information Society must be undertaken simultaneously with catching up the middle- and overclasses, or it will never be undertaken at all. In twenty years, perhaps the underclass will have their under-$100 used ShoulderMonkeys, and microwave data transmission will obviate the need for cable lines. But in twenty years the overclass will have moved into arenas of discourse, mediums of exchange, and will be living in virtual sovereign societies into which the underclass will be unable to digitally tread.
We will have effectively become two completely different societies (at least)--those who are deeply embedded in the digital society, and those who aren't. It will justify higher physical walls around more selective burbclaves, and further abandonment of the physical infrastructure of the poor. It will encourage greater separation on every front, because the underclass will be getting increasingly dangerous: as the services decline, as the buildings decay, as the jobs dissipate, as the rats outnumber the people in raw mass, people lose any reason for planning on any future. People who don't give a shit stop being easy to control, and become dangerous. Ergo, the walls get built higher still, and the digitally connected, the information elite, will have even more reason to stay online, not take walks, not go out, not go downtown, not go anywhere where they might run into the underclass. This will result, I fear, in the information elite losing even more touch with the real, because the real will be so frightening.
I really don't want to see that.
Government-mandated digital utility parity is the only system I can see that will work to prevent that ugly future. If we want a better, more just, more balanced society, where everyone has a chance to participate, then we must insist on laying the wires, paying for community computer centers, paying for digital teachers, and online-buddy programs, and hardware infrastructure grants, and remote schooling, and home PCs for welfare recipients, and the like.
There will be objections that it's heavy-handed socialism, which is why it must be put in place for everyone, not just for the poor; that is, mechanisms which benefit all (Social Security) are more palatable to all than mechanisms which only benefit the poor (AFDC), regardless of the moral imperatives. So we must be sure to have the assistance-to-telecommute in place as well as the assistance-to-connect.
There will be small showpiece programs put on by AT&T and Sprint and TCI and Microsoft and IBM and Apple, which will show proof of concept, and facilitate a few lives. Look--this poor school gets spanking new computers and an Internet connection! This soup kitchen is now a Soup-n-Web kitchen! This housing project is being built with Ethernet wiring right in the walls!
But those demo projects, while important, will deflect (unless we are watchful) demands that those and other companies bear any of the costs to develop a level information infrastructure, and will distract us from the real need to make dramatic steps toward information infrastructure parity.
That parity will result in a higher cost for the overclasses' infrastructure, because the telcos and cable companies will pass on the cost to the "consumers." It will be another of those "hidden taxes" we hear about. The companies will whine, and moan about competitiveness, and about hampering the speed of infrastructure development, and bla and blah. And it may also be an overt tax, designed to facilitate on a federal level the development of fairness in access tools. In this case you'll hear whining about the unfairness of new taxes, and bla and blah.
But we must recognize the long-term danger--the physical, economic, and spiritual danger--of ignoring the information parity issue. But we must insist that this "information age" tide really does lift all boats. The tide will drown our least able unless we help them learn to swim, or make their own boats, and are willing to absorb some costs to do it.
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