Community, not technology, solves the Digital Divide

The continuing COVID-19 crisis has deepened the already-significant inequality and inequity in the world. As businesses and schools attempted to go fully virtual last year, so many workers, parents, teachers and students found themselves cut off from the world. A 2020-2021 study found 400,000 teachers and 12 million students did not have Internet access to do distance learning. Millions across the United States rely on a cell phone as their primary computing and connectivity device, not having any other Internet access at home. The arbitrary data caps put in place by cell providers and traditional ISPs could not keep up with a significant increase in videochats and online activity, causing bills to skyrocket or service to be shut off.

The divide disproportionately affects Black, Latinx, and Native American students (who make up about 55% of disconnected students while representing about 40% of total students). It also disproportionately affects students in lower-income families: About 50% of disconnected students come from families with annual incomes less than $50,000.

LOOKING BACK, LOOKING FORWARD: What it will take to permanently close the K–12 digital divide, Common Sense Media

While report after report looks to building infrastructure as the way to solve the digital divide – and provide greater profit for the ISPs who will service the newly-connected areas – technology alone cannot solve a problem caused by social and economic inequality. Bringing service to neglected communities is a start but does not guarantee that people will be able to afford that service, or the devices needed to connect. It does not provide training on how to use email and the Internet. While a perfect infrastructure outcome connects all who want and need to be online, it drops people in a confusing world full of scams and danger.

Take passwords, for example. Common advice is to not reuse passwords among different services, to make sure passwords are long and not easily guessable. Or two-factor authentication, where you get a text message with a special code to login – which is great until you don’t have cell service or your phone number changes. Posting your entire life online seems fun and social until you realize years later that nothing ever really gets deleted from the web.
There is no introduction course for the Internet, no “driver’s ed” to go over the basics. And there are trolls, scammers and attackers who will target anyone they think they can get a dollar from or a rise out of.

If technology can’t solve these problems, I believe communities will be the ones to address them. Of course communities can mean the people near you physically in your neighborhood, town or even county. Community extends much further when we are connected, letting bonds form from across oceans and even languages in support of each other, in celebration of common loves, in grief over losses. When we have people around us we can relate to, we’re more likely to trust them. Technologists of all stripes, while a community in ourselves, must make ourselves available to others in a trustworthy way, to remove the gatekeeping and technical language around security and trust online. Do not laugh at someone who’s had an account hacked – help them recover it instead. And share the knowledge so that others can continue sharing without us needing to be there.

This is what PeerPride is building: programs that aren’t a top-down charity service but enable communities to strengthen themselves with help where they need.