The new information have-nots

By | January 9, 2013

thinktank4Many thousands of Internet cycles ago – perhaps 15 years in real time – a great deal of social concern was expressed around something called “the digital divide”. The idea was that society was becoming divided into two groups – information “haves”, where access to the Internet was ready and available, where children were trained from infancy in its use, and where information would be up to date; and the information “have-nots”, who were neither trained in the use of computers nor had access to them, and who would be at a perpetual disadvantage relative to their fellow citizens with regards to information availability. While estimates of the seriousness and imminence of this divide varied considerably, there seem to be a high degree of consensus that society was about to fragment once more along these lines.

Well, like many social problems for which there seem to be no quick fixes, this one managed to be largely ignored to death. While there is clearly a great deal of variation in how and how much people use the Internet and other information resources on a day-to-day basis, there is little evidence at the moment that this represents any kind of major societal cleavage. If one were to try to identify a single factor that has mitigated the emergence of this divide, it would probably be the emergence of the smart phone as a nearly ubiquitous information appliance. That has in turn stimulated the “appification” of knowledge space – the use of small special-purpose programs to access small bodies of knowledge, with Facebook and Twitter occupying most of the rest of application space. Of course, general-purpose browsers accessing the entire web are still important, but it’s perfectly possible to participate fully in the information society without a computer or much of any knowledge about information technology. And even throughout most of the third and fourth worlds, kids are beginning to access cyberspace through handcranked terminals.

As often happens, the futurists of an Internet generation ago managed to get the problem just about upside down. Even as the predicted hardware-based digital divide was being swept away by cheap information appliances, we began to see the emergence of proprietary information as leading to a different kind of divide – one based not on technology, but on the most traditional of society’s barriers: money. And it’s not just only money; it’s really about institutional access. These days, it is really only possible to get access to a wide range of professional information resources, including academic journals and other professional publications, if you have some established institutional identity.

Of course, if you have enough money, you can have anything you want. The same is of course true in healthcare. For example, I need to take a couple of medications for a chronic health condition. Since I have had health insurance all during my employment with my previous University, I never really thought about the “actual costs”of these medications; the only relevant question was the amount of the co-pay. Upon leaving the University, I suddenly found myself thrust into the half-world of “COBRA” health coverage, where for only a little more than half my now reduced total income, I might keep a reasonable fraction of my previous coverage for a while. The alternative was to pay some  $2,800 per month, the supposed “market price” for the medication. Fortunately, being of a certain age, I was able to transition into Medicare coverage, where again my medications become financially manageable. So in practice, there are two possible prices for this medication – nothing, or $33,000 per year  – and it is functionally impossible to take this medication apart from an institutional affiliation that presumably covers some part of this cost.

The same dynamic applies to professional information these days. Lacking an institutional affiliation as I do at the moment, I have the choice of forgoing all professional journals or paying somewhere in the vicinity of  $200 per article on the open market. An even greater complication was posed by my being cut off from institutional email and other IT services. For years, I have been solemnly assured by the University that I didn’t need to keep copies of anything, since it was all been maintained for me in my Outlook record. And indeed, whenever I needed to find something, it was fairly easy to retrieve. But when as of one afternoon I found myself with no further access to that record, I suddenly discovered that I had lost almost all the work I’d been in the middle of, along with a large portion of my email contact list. Several professional articles that I’d been working on had to be placed on more or less permanent hold, since I no longer had access to a journal database to check references or follow-up interesting possible leads. In short, loss of my institutional base cost me most of my professional base as well.

In the long run, if we are as a society trying to encourage people to be more entrepreneurial and less tied to large-scale organizations, we’re going to have to figure out a way to provide the professional resources to those outside the big institutions. I know it’s hard to understand this point when you’re still safe inside the academic walls, but professional isolation can be only half an hour away. I sincerely hope that we as a society trying to encourage professional flexibility and opportunities can do a better job in this area of information resources than we seem to be doing in the area of healthcare. The new digital divide is real, and the longer it persists the harder it will be ever to reestablish the kind of easy information interface one takes for granted.