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November 07, 2005

Dissonance and Divides

Who really cares?
Who's willing to try to save a world
That's destined to die?

-- Marvin Gaye

I just managed to take a hot phone off my ear and sit down to write. In the time that it takes to make sense of the issues buzzing around my head, I will have made up my mind that what I'm writing is worth writing and in due course miss a point.

Basically, this began with a SMS sent to me that said my Digital Divide stuff is full of crap. How much crap, the world will never know, which is something of a shame, yet something to be expected entirely. This is exactly the crux of a set of disagreements between myself and my pal, who cares enough about me to tell me when I'm making an ass of myself in the company of people who know better (but won't say). And so perhaps from that, I will coin a new one for Cobb's Rules. Only passion teaches thoroughly.

It turns out that Y was one of the heads in the old days that did a great deal heavy lifting in support of the universal internet access that we take for granted these days. In her story, some cat named Larry Irving was the head honcho riding herd on CLECs and other forms of clueless capitalists who left to their own devices would redline a host of Americans into internet-less limbo.

The organization deeply embedded in this process was the NTIA, which up until this point was a complete mystery to me and the reason Y says that hole in the ground may very well be my sphincter. I'm not sure which is which. She says that during the early days of internet-dom, people who should have known better had to be dragged kicking and screaming in massive schemes to wire anything other than prime communities. At that time, when I was in NYC, I had been a customer of the top dogs, Panix, the Well. Prior to that I was on Compuserv, Delphi, Prodigy and Lord knows how many other services. What I was familiar with, and certainly Okolo had even more exposure to, was the battles of Panix, a nascent ISP in the days before 'ISP' was a business model capable of getting a loan from the bank, much less stock issue. Alexis Rosen would constantly gripe about the screaming he had to do with the local bandwidth providers so he could connect our community of early internet surfers. Recall that these were the days before the HTTP protocol - the days of WAIS and the Ed Krol book.

When I arrogantly scoff about the so-called 'Digital Divide', I do it from the perspective of one of those people who was absolutely dedicated to putting black content online and ready to dismiss any foot-dragging on the matter from any quarter. In other words, I was an early adopter who had always been trying to push things forward. As such, and as a college-educated, big-city type with disposable income, I have always managed to find a way to get online and networked to where the public networked work was being done. Of course, others are not so privileged, and isn't the temptation always to be looking out for their best interests?

It's the gap between folks like me and folks like Y that make the gap between folks like you and the purported victims of the Digital Divide so interesting. You see, I have come to conclude that once computers were available at Best Buy, circa 1996, that was the beginning of the end of the Digital Divide. And further that between 1991 and 1996, the essential factor of the Digital Divide was demand. In other words, the economic gap between somebody like me and somebody who had been 'divided' shrunk to essentially nothing during that period, however if there was any significant divide it had to do with the percieved value of what was online.

Given that if you lived in the boonies, where according to Y, there were huge geographic barriers to providing dialup service, from the days when PPP first became available and the birth of AOL, there argument is essentially that.

So what was the killer app? What was this thing that the poor, black, uneducated and rurally isolated people needed, and what was keeping them from it? Was it supply or demand? Well, from my perspective as someone who always found a way to get online, it was demand. There was simply nothing so compelling in the online world.

There's an interesting story in here that I should interject which might make this otherwise dull dissection of history more flavorful. I was at a conference at USC, somewhere around the days before HP made Motif commercially available. The legendary Stallman himself was there. I had been out of school at least a year and he was babbling on about 'free software'. The odd thing was that I hadn't been availed to any free software while I was in college myself, and I was completely in the dark about where this stuff would be coming from. Part of this was wholly my ignorance, and so I stood up and asked what I thought to be a fairly provocative question. If free software is supposed to be so valuable to the planet, how come we can't get it at Egghead - not that there are any Egghead software joints in the 'hood. You basically had to be a college student in one of the colleges that actually had a node on the internet such as it was in those days (around 1987). Then, the killer app was USENET, and even while I was a full time employee at Xerox, it was nearly impossible to get access to USENET inside this massive corporation. Bottom line, if there were a quarter of a million Americans in the late 80s that could use GNU stuff, I would have been pretty amazed.

What this has to do with the value of things Internetworked is rather key to this entire discussion of the Digital Divide. As my example showed, it was and is perfectly possible to get a good job, even in the computer industry in America, and still not have access to the coolest stuff which is supposed to drive the value of the internet.

Which brings me to the central question. What was it of value that those traditionally redlined people were missing before the economics (and laws?) of the hardware, software and networked access became available and affordable? The answer is basically raw technology services, because that's all there was. Email and NNTP, to be specific. Those were the killer apps in the early 90s, other than that, everybody had BBS access - that is to say everybody who knew what it was.

But I am going to leave this otherwise thought-provoking issue die a quiet death. In fact, I'm going to crack jokes at its funeral. Why, because nobody cares to correct me, least of all my pal Y, who is quite satisfied to leave such matters to the mists of historical documentation somewhere in the bowels of the NTIA archives, and perhaps someday in Mr. Irving's memoirs. In the meantime, I will count myself among the oblivious millions who might have given a turd about the valiant and selfless acts done on our behalf, but are too busy watching stuff like Joe Cartoon.

Posted by mbowen at November 7, 2005 09:44 PM

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