I don’t think it was as truly shocking as many people seemed to think it was when danah boyd blogged about the class divide between users of Myspace and Facebook.  I think it’s a significant divide, though, and I think that many critics of danah’s work were more given over to how she wrote rather than what she wrote.  And, as someone deeply committed to social justice as well as an internet evangelical, I think we owe it to ourselves to break this down a little bit more.

Talking to a co-worker who grew up in poverty in rural Alabama was pretty enlightening for me: she hadn’t had access to a computer until she was in her late teens.  Though there’s a class divide between users of Myspace and Facebook, what proportion of young Americans don’t have regular access to a computer and the internet?  I think it’s important that they do, but people in my place seem to forget that free (and I don’t mean cost-wise, because it’s not actually that hard to locate internet access you don’t have to pay for, so long as you live in an area with a decent public library) internet access to youth is something that isn’t yet taken for granted in many places in this country.  It’s remarkably emblematic for me of the privilege we experience as academics.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, most kids who come from impoverished backgrounds, have parents who did not complete high school, and/or Spanish-speaking-only households generally only have internet access at school, which is hardly free.  Though it’s reassuring that some 92% of public school classrooms have internet access, what’s the quality of that access?  How fast is it?  How free is it?

I know that I have made a grave assumption in the past that internet usage is ubiquitous enough to carry the kind of revolution that I envision.  I think that I have been coming to terms with my privilege — NCES notes that many more youth with parents who have parents with post-graduate degrees and don’t live in poverty have internet access both at home and school — coming from my financial and eduational background.  While I still think the internet is the future, and I think that it is the last great hope for democracy in the world, it worries me that, while only 54% of Americans reported using the internet in 2001, the government and big telecom are already taking steps to restrict what should be weird and free.

Do we have a responsibility as economically privileged members of society to keep the internet free for those who are still newcomers?  What can we do to increase computer and internet literacy in impoverished areas?  How can we teach young people who don’t have consistent, free access to the internet the value of information?  I think this is clearly an educational problem, and the solutions, like the solutions to problems facing impoverished school districts, are not easy.  A first step is the provision of new, good computers and courses that encourage the use of the internet.  Unfortunately I feel like many of the people in my age bracket who are interested in education don’t seem to have an eye and a knack for the internet, and those who are technological evangelists like myself are more focused on research and academia than the hands-on work of spreading the technology we love to places which cannot afford it.

I think, though, that part of the reason we’re not so invested in this distribution is because we don’t talk about poverty in the United States.  The One Laptop Per Child project, for example, is focused on providing computers to poor children in developing nations.  And while OLPC has an admirable goal, who’s working on access to computers in the United States?  And, while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds projects to get more computers and steady internet access into public libraries across the U.S., I doubt that just computers and community-oriented literacy courses are going to change the way youth in these areas interact with information technology.

So: what do we do about this?