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It only took me an hour to get through the entire voting process.  Down at my polling place, there was a carnival atmosphere: at least a dozen of my friends were there around when I was there, and we had sparklers and candy and there were high-fives for everyone.  We hung out with the Democratic voter assistance volunteers (one of whom was in all of my philosophy classes last year) and drank coffee and talked about the election.  Spirits are high.  People are counting on this.

But in Ypsilanti Township, people are waiting three or four hours to vote.  In Miami-Dade, people are waiting upwards of five.  It is excruciatingly clear that we are privileged.  Not only did I only have to spend an hour at my polling place, I had the option to hang out and meet other voters.  Economically underpivileged people, especially people who work bit jobs for hourly wages, don’t have that kind of luxury.  Especially when you consider that wait times are considerably longer in underprivileged areas, you can’t help but think — this isn’t an explicit poll tax, but it might as well be.  If I were working 60 hours a week and living paycheck-to-paycheck, I couldn’t spend three hours waiting to cast my ballot.  If I were making just enough money to make rent and were living on food stamps, I would honestly probably choose making my money over voting.  And even if I had the chance to plan ahead and sock a little extra away for November (some people still can’t do that), my employer might not be so cool with me taking off.  I’m enormously privileged as a college student living in an upper middle-class community that 1) I can take time out of my day to vote and 2) there are plenty of volunteers in my area to staff my polling place.

I am not-so-secretly ashamed of myself for not volunteering in Ypsi Township.

I’m also really excited that people are using the internet to give voting social capital.  While the white oval “I Voted” sticker that is on my messenger bag is pretty cool, it’s nowhere near as exciting to get involved on Facebook.  Logging in this morning, I was presented with a running count of every Facebook member who has voted.  I changed my status to the automated message from the Causes application (I was recruited by a friend, and have recruited two so far).  The sheer numbers — nearly a million people used the Causes application to change their statuses simultaneoulsy at midnight, over 2 million have reported voting already — is something that makes it thrilling, not to mention unifying.

This is cool and everything, but how can we better use social networking tools to galvanize young people?  I kind of wonder how many people would have gotten their hands dirty with this on Facebook if it weren’t such an important election to us?  I hope we immediately start working on ways to motivate people in the future.  Social capital is remarkably valuable, and also remarkably easy to come by on the internet.  So long as you have a critical mass of users who are participating, others start paying attention.

And using online social capital to get out the vote is one thing, but it still doesn’t answer a fundamental question: how do we reenfranchise the disenfranchised?  What about the voters in Ypsi Township, in Detroit, in Miami-Dade County?

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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?

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