Tuesday, March 07, 2006

the divide

for years in the mid-90's, w-w-w dot anything meant nothing to me besides something that other people could see that i couldn't. i had a computer. an overpriced, obsolete-when-it-left-the-factory model that was too slow even for dial-up. i knew how to use a computer, and i could type. i'd learned word processing, spreadsheet, database, and presentation software in school. but the internet was a frontier that i had yet to face.

then my college years changed all that. i got my first e-mail account. learned what an "inbox" was. found out about w-w-w's and the many possibilities that lay ahead of the dot anything - dot everything. new vocabulary: search engine, message board, spam, login name. what a world. a friend of mine gave me the address to her very own web page that she designed herself. i was so jealous. she'd made it in a class that taught/reinforced computer literacy. it'd been a few years since the high school course, and word in the lounge was that the last part of the course taught enough to make web pages! oh, i was soooo down for that. or, as the terminology at the time requires - i was about to get up on that. down, up, whichever, i was all over that course in the next semester. file transfer protocol. tags. attributes. gifs. jay-pegs. i was hooked, making page after page after page - gaining more knowledge about making webpages from - where else? the internet. over time, message boards, web programming, and webpage design became more sophisticated. it was great! i made friends in other states that i've never seen to this day. i remember one day, some small company nobody'd ever heard of visited the computer lab with a grip of mouse pads, trying to support their website. wish i'd known then what i know now. goo.gle.

tagging along after some friends, i wound up in the club about a month ago - as i was on my way in, some cute guy was on his way out. he whipped out his cellphone and asked me for my - did you think i was going to say number? oh no no no. that is so 20th century. he asked me for my e-mail address. it's a new world. i don't own an encyclopedia. i've got wik.ipedia dot com. i don't deal with the yellow pages. i've got goo.gle dot com. i don't need a map. i've got map.quest dot com. (though a map is more reliable.) shoot - i owe a significant chunk of my social life to the internet. my good search skills led me to the community of poets i now think of as extended family. i can't imagine living without the world at my fingertips and information on demand.

until i talk to some of the folks i know - most especially family members and friends that don't have or regularly use access to computers. i cringe when i see people i love flailing while trying to use commonly used office software or trying to find information on the internet. i remember that feeling, vividly, though it was over a decade ago. so many new things: how do you work this thing? how come you can't just fill-in-the-blank? well, how was i supposed to know i needed to press fill-in-the-blank? well where do i find it and how? my parents want a computer. my grandma wants a computer. i know other folks who have computers that don't know what to really do with them except word processing or uploading photos and maybe, if they're advanced, check e-mail. not that they have to do more. but i wish they could at least know how to do more. there is so much in the world that's closed to someone with limited computer skills.

it's just that, where my first instinct is to "goo.gle it," or reserve it online, or pay it online, or investigate it online, these folks are plodding through 21st century life with a 20th century understanding. sending off bills hoping they make it through the mail in time. waiting on hold on the phone for information they could get in an instant if they just logged on to the internet. scared to write checks because their printed bank statement is still three weeks away in the mail. hesitating to even get internet access or conduct business online because of all the consumer reports about privacy and identity theft and because of conspiracy theories that black folks tend to fear. it is the difference between hiding your money under a mattress/between ezekiel and daniel, and getting an interest-bearing certificate of deposit.

i remember reading years ago about the digital divide - how it would negatively impact the poor and minorities. i remember understanding that because i was fresh of the boat from the other side of the divide. but i crossed over. and i noticed how much cheaper computers were starting to get. you can get a computer that's a gazillion times better than my first computer for almost one-tenth the price. i figured, well, computers are cheaper than big-screens now, so we should be better off, right? dial-up will at least get you onto the net for as little as five or ten dollars a month, so we should be better off, right? it depends. computer directions aren't all that clear. and computer training isn't handed out at your local retail chain store. the digital divide is still here. affording the tool is not enough, and not having internet access is like not having a telephone nowadays.

what's your e-mail address? if you put it on the sign-up list, we can send you e-mails on our listserve so you can be kept up-to-date.

do you have a myspace page? give me your username and i'll hit your inbox with a message or leave a comment.

oh, well, all our information, directions and everything, is at the website. the address is w-w-w dot bla bla bla...

the world keeps on turning, family. and folks - my folks included - are missing out on the new literacy - getting left behind. some don't even know what they're missing - the knowledge, the interaction... and that scares me.