Monday, September 03, 2012

Digital Divide

My phone broke in half. Seriously. I went to the Verizon store to "upgrade." An iPhone 4 is free with data plan. A basic phone is $130 with 2 year contact. The salesman explained they are phasing out basic phones- the manufacturers are going to stop producing them. 

I ask "what about folks who can't afford a data plan?" 

He said "we are working on some all inclusive plans." 

I ask "will it cost more than what I have now?" 

He fiddles with his computer for a while, but we both know the answer. Of Course it will. 

I know that we could afford a data plan if that was the most important thing to us. If I gave up Yoga, or if my son gave up Soccer, or if we never bought anything fancy at the grocery store. But it is not the most important thing to me. In fact, I'm starting to feel downright ornery about it.

We've all heard in theory about the digital divide, but it wasn't until I was called to serve a congregation in the Endless Mountains that I met so many people who can't get cell phone coverage or cable or DSL at their homes. 

When I go to collegial events I seem to be one of the only UU ministers without a laptop or smart phone. I run into a colleague in the hall at a conference who asks "can you reply to my e-mail..." and the answer is "no, I am 1500 miles from my computer, you are going to have to talk to me now in person if you want an answer." Another colleague suggests "couldn't you get a grant to buy a laptop?" But in fact we all know that technology is not a capitol expense like a building, it is an ongoing expense requiring frequent upgrades- not one grant this year, but a new grant every 3 years or so to stay even vaguely current. And, more to the point, my congregation does not expect me to answer e-mail when I'm on the road. Because they don't have laptops or smart phone either. They have my phone number and they know they can call me if it's important. 

I write this blog on a desktop with a CPU I can barely lift. I use Word  2003 and an OS so old it has to take a nap after opening iTunes. 

I'm not even going to get into the carbon footprint of replacing our technology so often, I just want to stand at the edge of this digital divide and witness. Why does it matter? Because our elected representatives are saying things like "no one needs welfare any more because they can just start a business on the Internet." Really? Are going to buy everyone a computer and pay for their monthly DSL line. Oh, and are you going to run cable out into the truly rural areas so they aren't running their business with dial up?

I attended an anti-oppression conference and one of the other participants pondered, "don't you think all these differences are going to resolve themselves with technology?" So it's not just that some folks have technology and others don't, it's that too many of the folks who have pre-ordered their iPhone 5 don't realize that millions of Americans are completely app-less. 

Or let's think closer to home. Our own UUA has shifted some of their funding and focus from districts to regions, with tons of new webinars. Have you ever tried to attend a webinar without a high speed connection? 

Even if I could afford the data plan and could, right now, be writing all this to you from my brand new iPhone 4, I wonder if I would. I want that daily reminder that the more we transition our communications to exclusive technology, the harder we make it to communicate with all those folks on the other side of the digital divide.