WiFi and Equality
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
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
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
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
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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