The Digital Divide

This morning I’d like to talk about the Digital Divide, which is the idea that having the internet and being otherwise technologically savvy is better than not.  This is a bit of an oversimplification of the idea, but there’s only so much you can load into 20 minutes.

Before I get into the homily, let me just say that I looked for Unitarian commentary on internet access being a civil right and I didn’t find much.  If you think access to the internet is a civil right, then please make sure you add that plank to your personal social justice platform.  I tell you, with no fear of being contradicted, that you do not need internet access to know how important the internet was to the start of the Arab Awakening in Tunisia, and to the fall of the Mubarek government in Egypt.  In fact Mubarak was just this week fined many millions of dollars for shutting down the internet in Egypt, a court ruling which must be scaring some other dictators out of their socks.

In another example of how the internet has changed our lives and the headlines, when Ai Wei Wei, the colossally talented and courageous artist and activist from the People’s Republic of China was arrested, he took a picture of himself framed by plainclothes thugs in a mirrored hotel elevator, and sent it to the internet before they had time to stop him.  That is how fast the world moves these days.  News is coming through unfiltered, and you need a strong stomach and a stout heart to deal with much of it.

I believe that uncensored access to the internet should definitely be part of the Unitarian value system.  I don’t believe in uncensored access for impressionable young minds, though, that’s for parents to decide.

Most of us are aware that the internet started as a way for US government computers to talk to each other, almost half a century ago.  That invention has since ballooned into one of the most important developments in human history.  It created a network of machine based nests for every conceivable class of ideas to take shelter in.  The internet is not a small ecological niche, it’s the Gaia of ideas, the place all ideas may potentially be connected to.

The printing press changed the world because poor but literate people could now learn on their own.  The internet has made it possible for every extreme and every norm of human behaviour to find a home.  It has not only has made more room for human ideas, it’s made it easier for those ideas to get into any other human brain which can apprehend them.  The internet itself could at this point collapse, but the idea of the internet would not; the internet has changed how a large number of relatively privileged human beings think about and value information, as well as changed attitudes toward how we store information and share it, and I will provide a concrete example of that later.

My brother, who has made a living working with computers in various ways since the late 80’s, says that the only revolutionary thing about the internet is the pace.  Every piece of information that’s on the internet you could get some other way; it would just take longer.

For those in the congregation who do not have internet access, whether by choice, physical infirmity, chance or lack of funds, I will not be attempting to convince you that you’re missing something if you don’t have it or tell you that it’s cheap when that’s not my call, nor will I be talking about how easy it is, or any of that nonsense, because almost three quarters of the world doesn’t have internet access and life, strangely enough, continues along at its normal pace whether the internet is around or not.  It can be argued that the internet is having an even more corrosive effect on social life and social discourse than the introduction of television.  At the same time, a more powerful tool for staying connected to loved ones who are far away has never been invented.

In my view, in every Unitarian congregation there should be at least a dozen members who have nothing to do with this newfangled internet thing that seems to have so many people addicted to it, to keep the rest of us honest about how church really is about face to face interactions with real people whom we care about.  I believe that to be in each other’s physical presence must be a harmonious component of what church is; that it takes place in real time and in real space with real people who gather and worship with us.

The internet can enable and supplement the Beacon worship experience, but it cannot compete with Sunday morning, and it would be foolish to use the internet to try.  We’ve said that internet access is necessary for Beacon Board membership, but is it really?  We are revisiting that conversation among ourselves because it seems strange to call ourselves welcoming when we cannot accommodate a member in good standing on our board if he or she doesn’t have internet access.

So far I’ve managed to avoid my actual topic. I’m not here to talk about church politics – although I hope I’ve shown the influence of the internet on even that; I’m here to talk about what I discovered when I started thinking about the digital divide and how it relates to our faith.  After reflection, I realized that there are many fault lines which one could call a digital divide that aren’t just about the haves and have nots of basic internet access.

There is not one digital divide, in my view, but three.  They are age, infrastructure and government interference. I will mostly be talking about age as in Beacon’s case it’s most relevant. Everybody in this room has access; if you don’t avail yourself it’s because you can’t be bothered or the screen is hard to read or you have to go to the library or your computer is broken or you’re not aware of the software and hardware assistive technology to those who have infirmities.  We in Canada have the infrastructure, we have the money and those who don’t can get access at a library, and our government isn’t censoring it although suspicious as I am of our current government I wouldn’t put it past them. The role the internet plays in the lives of young people is massive.  Anyone under 20 in Vancouver has never lived in a world without the internet, without easy access; long enough to think the world was ever thus.

I’d like to quote the late science fiction author and noted atheist Douglas Adams on the subject of technology, which I think helps illustrate the gap between young and old with respect to the internet.

There’s a set of rules that anything that was in the world when you were born is normal and natural. Anything invented between when you were 15 and 35 is new and revolutionary and exciting, and you’ll probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.

Anybody under the age of 20 is well aware what a cesspool of bad taste, antisocial political rhetoric and pornography the internet can be when one trains one’s eye on its most extreme and septic reaches.  I know that I still have the capacity to be unpleasantly surprised, which is why I tend to be careful where I go when I wander around the internet.  Those under 20 either understand that they have no privacy or have somehow managed to reframe the notion of privacy so that they appear to their elders to be crazily cavalier about it.  A careless comment on a social networking site can get you fired; many of the young people I know on facebook post pictures of themselves doing the standard range of stupid things young people do, with occasional bonus shots of them doing something illegal.  I always want to flutter my hands anxiously and counsel them not to do it, but I don’t because I’ll get told to mind my own business.

The age fracture line is a difficult one.  My children have never been aware of a world in which there was no internet.  It completely permeates their lives.  My parents, who are in their seventies, use the internet so extensively in the pursuit of their hobbies that both of them could be considered power users.  You would think that with this access there could be a commonly shared set of values regarding the internet inside our family, but there is not.  I think my family’s experience is not unique.

My parents go to quite ludicrous lengths — at least in my opinion — to protect their privacy and their data.  They find my blog — an online diary -useful, in that they can keep up with my daily comings and goings, but also horrifying, because I talk about things that people who were born in the thirties generally think fall under the category of “none of your beeswax”.  I in my turn do not talk about my sex life, because my mother reads my blog, so, ew, or my place of employment except in general and innocuous terms, because I want to stay employed and it’s possible a boss or customer might read it. But I have been very candid on a number of other subjects, including my mental health, which, although I feel fine now, took a very bad turn earlier this year. I talk about church a lot too, and politics, and atheism. I have very clear ideas about what I can and can’t talk about.  But as far as I can see from what my younger friends post, they will talk about every aspect of their lives, no matter how personal or trivial or potentially subject to attention from the police.

Time for another aside.  It’s just like the internet, folks, one thing leads to another and the next thing you know it’s two am.

I know I may sound heretical, but I believe that the closer we all get to a clear understanding exactly what ‘normal’ is — what human beings really behave like whether as individuals or part of a group— the sooner we can develop, as a society, understandings and folkways about how people should behave on a daily basis that are rooted in reality rather than hapless idealism, and are rooted in science rather than shame. As strange as it may sound, those young people, being so open about their lives, may be doing all of us a service.  It still gives me the willies, but part of the walk of faith is confronting what frightens you.

I mentioned earlier that the Canadian version of the internet is a pretty free place.  It isn’t a democratic one, but it is not a censored one.  Let me give you a real life example of the censorship of the internet in other countries.

All the money in China will not get you access to the world famous picture of the man who stood in front of the tank in Tienanmin Square, during the pro democracy rallies of 1989; the Chinese government has fixed it so that if you look for that picture you will see pictures of happy foreigners in the square.

An entire generation of Chinese schoolchildren has no idea that a young man stood in front of the tanks approaching the square before he was hustled from harm’s way.   Access to the internet does not mean you can see everything; it really depends on where you are and of course how much technical knowledge you have or how much your friends have.

Restrictive regimes have a real problem with the internet.  To not have it is to cripple local commerce and telecommunications.  To have it is to provide a weapon to your citizenry to actively oppose the government and in some cases assist in toppling it.

The final digital divide is infrastructure.  In Africa, internet access has increased by more than 10 times in a decade; it remains the fastest growing market.  However, in Africa, the internet is more associated with cellular phones; instead of huge networks of optical fiber or copper, it’s cheaper, faster and better to put up cell towers.  In Canada, a company in Saskatoon will sell and set up a ground station for satellite internet access at any point on the globe for $25 grand and expenses.  It gives me a mental image that I could spend a week in a dugout canoe along the upper reaches of the Amazon and there could be an internet café in the middle of the jungle.

What have I learned about the digital divide?  I’ve learned that it exists in our congregation, and that we would be wise to come up with the resilience and forethought to address it.  I’ve seen how where you are demographically affects how you use the internet and why.  I’ve seen how repressive governments steal their own citizens’ history out from under them so well that they can make uncomfortable facts vanish, even as the rest of the world knows what’s going on.

Most of all I recognize now that I personally have been putting far too much weight on the importance of the internet.  Of course it’s important, but let me tell you a little story.

This past Friday, my friend in the IT department at work came by and said, “Internet’s down in five!”  My teammate cried aloud, “You promissssssssed, it would be five thirty.”   IT guy said, “Five minutes, I’m just the messenger.”  It was four o’clock in the afternoon.  He said five minutes but we were already losing access as he came walking through.
Everything I do at work depends on the internet.  My email is hosted in Victoria.  My contact management software is hosted in San Francisco.  That means that the computers storing the data are in San Francisco.  The entire phone system for my company uses the internet to carry calls even between one desk and the next, and the call center software I use which allows me to transfer calls to coworkers in the US at the press of a button is also hosted someplace in California.  Without the internet, I can’t do anything.

Since I couldn’t work, I went home.

Then it occurred to me.  My community will still be here, and the doors will open again next Sunday, whether or not the internet even exists this time next week.  I realized that I had missed something important.  The internet is a tool; this is a community. I used to think that the internet was important.  I still do.  But it isn’t as important as the people in this room, and I’m glad that delivering this homily brought me to that realization.

Blessed be.







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