Sunday, April 11, 2010

Editorials & the Digital Divide

In this Sunday morning's Advertiser the two "local" editorials both focus on the recently released baseline survey of internet use and attitudes. Three things struck me about the essays...two were similarities and one was a contrast.

The contrast lay in how much the two pieces evidenced a familiarity with, and a sympathy for, Lafayette.

This has become a familiar topic as the Advertiser's Gannett-based owners follow a policy of rotating in new editorial staff from papers located elsewhere in their empire and, more recently, have lost staff as the national newspaper market continues to contract. Only a few of today's staff have, for instance, any depth of understanding of the fiber fight that brought in fiber or the roll the digital divide issue played in referendum.

The headline editorial, presumed to be an expression of the new editor's voice, was one of those pieces which gets the message right and the tone wrong. Yes the digital divide is an issue and, yes, the community needs to get behind efforts to close that gap. That is the right message. But the same essay misses the fact that even running this survey is a uniquely responsible thing for a community to do.—I know of no other community that has chosen to be so conscientious in its self-examination on this issue. It'd be nice to notice that. Other odd "unLafayette" tones include obligatory doubts as to the "propriety" (propriety?) of competing with private industry. Here in Lafayette that's not an issue—we settled that on July 16th of 2005 when the city overwhelming endorsed fiber after a battle in which the Advertiser finally editorialized that Lafayette was right to reject that reasoning...but that was one, or is it two, editors ago. (Heck, Gannett's national paper, USA Today, also endorsed Lafayette's fiber!) There was also the mild snark that this astonishingly rigorous academic survey (authored by UL to national standards and run by the local Acadiana Educational Endowment) was some how "self-serving." Finding and publicizing a digital divide when it would have been easy to "pass" on such a hot-button issue might be called many things but "self-serving" is hardly one of them. Finally, one would think that the editorial just might notice that LUS and LCG have, in part explicitly motivated by this survey, applied for broadband stimulus money to address the issue. From reading the bland editorial—which advocated nothing but the platitude that both private and public providers "redouble their efforts"—you'd never guess that the public provider is already at least attempting to address the issue.

The contrasting second editorial, "Important road isn't available to everyone," was signed by Bill Decker, whose views on Lafayette's fiber (and other issues) have mellowed considerably over the years of his tenure in Lafayette. This piece starts by recounting one example of how the internet's vast storehouse of knowledge is put at his fingertips...with BingGoogle leading him from the Book of Mark to fall of Troy. It's sensitive in the way that it tackles the touchy topic of ignorance and education by starting with his own lack of knowledge showing how it was alleviated by easy access to the resources that are available over the internet. The internet is an amazing storehouse of information and, while the knowledge he quoted are those highfalutin ones that only fifteen years ago would have been available only in a large university's specialized research library, he could have as easily talked about the more homey topic of finding the latest recommendations on tomato and okra plants suitable for a small south Louisiana garden. I was personally impressed that he Decker zeroed in on poverty as the immediate issue; in that I think he is right and data that revealed which census tracts had the lowest broadband usage would confirm that race is not the only issue.

Both editorials emphasize the digital divide. And they both paint the survey as an LUS survey. I'd argue with both points. But not with writers of these editorials—both takes are understandable since the digital divide was the only topic raised and the press release came from LUS. But both conclusions are, in my estimation, committing the error of mistaking the part for the whole. While this first press release, following LUS/LCGs application for stimulus grants focused on the difficulties the study reveals the data itself is much, much richer and will serve us all well as we try to understand and shape a changing, fiber-enabled Lafayette. A much fuller discussion of the whole of the survey needs to be put on the table for the community so that it knows where it is now and so can rationally plan where it wants to go...not only in regard to the digital divide but in regard to the myriad of factors from wireless use to the effects of the French language among local Cajuns and Creoles. The digital divide is only one aspect among the many that we need to grasp in order to plan our own future. The idea that it was the community that needed to understand itself in order to make was decisions about what to do with its new asset was always the idea that motivated the survey, and it is why, from the beginning, the intent was to freely distribute both the survey data and the survey instrument. In a previous post I emphasized the deep and continuing involvement of community members in this project dating back to before the fiber referendum in '05. Finally having the survey available is a culmination of a truly community effort. LUS did pay for the survey—and deserves all the props possible for overcoming the issue of funding when absolutely no one else would step up. LUS deserves that credit even more because the survey actually does very little that is directly useful to LUS as a simple business. It is obvious, once you look at the data and the series of questions in the instrument that it is not a "marketing" survey but a broader assessment of community attitudes about technologies rather than one that focuses on particular commercial products and how to best package them.

So, those two essays, sitting on the same page offer a lot of things to think about. If there is anything that joins all these ideas it is that it is hard to overestimate the value of knowledgeable locals committed to the community...

Well that's probably enough for a ruminative Sunday afternoon in the spring.

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