WiFi and Equality

Some people have asked us why we’re talking so much about Wi-Fi, instead (supposedly) of issues like housing or health care. The answer is that ensuring everyone’s access to the net, at broadband speeds, is as important as making sure everyone had electricity 75 years ago, or making sure everyone has a working telephone.

It’s about empowerment and equality of opportunity.

Ethan Zuckerman, the founder of Geek Corps, once told me this story about a remote village in southern Africa. An aid organization met with the village’s leaders and told them they could either build a better road to the village, build a clinic, or get them satellite phone service. They didn’t have the money to do all three, so the village had to choose one.
The village’s leaders chose the phone service. Why? Because, they reasoned, with working phones they could call the regional capital to pressure the government to fix the road and build the clinic.

Universal low-cost, high-speed wireless Internet has that same empowering quality. Not only will it improve educational opportunities for our kids and security for all of us, it is a platform not just for innovation, but also for enhancing everyone’s access to information, organization, and ultimately power. Advocates for affordable housing or better health care, or any other pressing civic issue, will be strengthened because they can network more easily.

This isn’t an easy message to deliver. People are used to politicians that just promise them more goodies (and frankly, lots of people are sick of politics entirely because of that behavior). We’re talking about changing the paradigm and using city government to be a platform for greater civic engagement and self-empowerment. This campaign is not just about electing one person who will solve everyone else’s problems, but about fostering an open-source-style network involving all the city’s volunteer public advocates.

Not only that, it’s about making a transformative difference in the lives of those among us who have the least. Just read this article by Jonathan Krim in the Washington Post from last summer, “Program Aids Urban Poor In Accessing The Internet.” It describes how a non-profit group, One-Economy, has been bringing low-cost broadband service to public housing projects around the country, including in Philadelphia:

Under the Philadelphia program, the Cox family — three generations of women sharing a rowhouse — gets high-speed Internet access for $10 a month. It has changed their world. [Emphasis added]

Taah (pronounced Tay-uh) was an unfocused third-grader whose father is in jail. Her mother, Maya, who was 13 when she gave birth to Taah, was told at the time that she probably needed a kidney transplant. Theodora Cox, at 64, faced the added uncertainty of retirement.

Eight months ago, Theodora Cox saw a flier advertising the One Economy program: enroll in an eight-week training course and then have the opportunity to buy a computer for $120 and get broadband for $10 a month. Despite a long-standing fear of computers, the retired social worker dived in.

Now Taah “is the technology director in her class,” a proud Theodora Cox said. She bickers with her granddaughter about who taught who more about computers. “She’s on it every day, and she teaches the other children in the neighborhood.”

From their living room, Maya and her mother began research on Maya’s kidney disease, corresponding with patients and medical professionals in other countries who often were more responsive than local doctors. And Theodora Cox uses the Internet to help her sell a line of candles to people in the neighborhood….

In the Coxes’ West Powellton neighborhood, 50 homes are taking advantage of the wireless network put together and run by the People’s Emergency Center, which operates several social service projects in the area with help from the United Way.

Theodora Cox even traveled to Washington to urge the staff of Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) to support additional funding for the Philadelphia program.
Now, according to the naysayers, this poor benighted person should have been lobbying for more direct aid to pay her rent or purchase medicine, not for some ephemeral program to connect her to the Internet. Ah, those poor people, they have no idea what’s good for them!

The fact is everyone is talking about education and affordable housing and health care, and everyone’s ideas are sort of the same. But no one is really talking about the city’s future and the consequences of the imagination gap we’re suffering from. 

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