Digital Divide: Public Access is not Equal Access

I have a desk top at work and a lap top at home—I know that no one else uses them and that I can access them at any time. Because of this freedom I bank online, check out health symptoms when my daughter gets ill, research real estate, communicate with friends, and shop to my heart’s content at 10AM or 2AM.

A few years ago I was home with my daughter and to do this we drastically cut expenses—internet was one of the things we cut. This seemed like a great expense to cut—I went to the library every week with our daughter so I could just get online for free. Why pay when just a few blocks away the exact same resource was for free?

It turns out it wasn’t the exact same resource.

I could hand my library card to the librarian at any time the library was open, and in return I would receive a laminated card upon which she wrote my start and end time—30 minutes. Now, we’ll suspend reality here and pretend I didn’t have a child with me whose distractions turned these 30 minutes of focused computing into 10—we’ll pretend that I was able to sit, uninterrupted, for 30 minutes and go about my little to do list.

What do you do with 30 minutes?

You prioritize—and those priorities become bills, bills, check the bank account, check the email, and BAM you are done. If ‘smiley librarian’ is working and no one is waiting you could maybe charm your way into more time, but if ‘grouchy librarian’ is working you can just put your charm back in your pocket and get your fanny out of that seat pronto! So you see, 30 minutes does not really lend itself to surfing and sifting through articles on the symptoms of croup or scouting out good mortgage rates.

Then comes safety.

There’s the personal safety and the creepy guys who come in and troll dating websites and craigslist ‘massage’ listings while they check you out with sideways glances. Then there’s the personal information safety issue—the people who read your screen or the people who put programs on to scarf up your passwords or save your keystrokes. When you know they could be around-do you check your bank account or pay a bill?

During that time period I really found myself going back in time technologically. I started paying my bills with an envelope and stamp or calling the 800 number and eating the processing fee. I called friends or just didn’t communicate with extended family and fringe friends very much. I relied on other people to tell me the latest news. I didn’t research options for where to buy a car or the best bank rates.

My life wasn’t unhappy-in some ways it was better because I was more focused on life and not itching to get online, but I did pay more for things and lost touch with people. I might not have run my young daughter to the doctor as much if I could have looked at parenting websites a bit more.

When I went back to work, and had access to the internet at home and work again, some things in life did improve—mostly because of the time I got back. When my daughter is asleep I can do banking, and shop—all things that before took away from my time with her. She had to amuse herself while I paid bills by hand and had to endure shopping expeditions to the big city 1.25 hours away ‘cause we live in the boonies.

It wasn’t just time, though—it was money, too.

Like I said, we live in a rural area where the nearest mall is over an hour away. I had serious urban withdrawal when we moved here. Because I wasn’t using the internet to shop we had to travel, and for part of that time gas was over $4.00/gallon. Now that I am online I can scout out the deals and free shipping codes and save a serious amount of money on clothes and hard to get grocery items.

Having lived on both sides of the digital divide, I can truly say that public access is not equal access.

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About englecm

I am an academic advisor at a college in rural WNY,