Online Communication: Linking Technology, Identity, and Culture

By Andrew F. Wood; Matthew J. Smith | Go to book overview
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The digital divide problem has been defined mainly in terms of access, but it needs to be defined more broadly as a matter of skill.

—Karen Mossberger (cited in Feder, 2003)

Grabbing a burger at your local McDonald's or sipping a latte down the road at Starbucks, you might find more than an inexpensive lunch or a caffeine jolt; you could also be able to download an mp3, update your blog, or check your e-mail. And you may be able to do it all for free. Inspired by the impressive rollout of by-thehour wireless Internet access provided by Starbucks, fast food giant McDonald's has begun to experiment with wireless hubs so that customers can stay online even while grabbing a quick bite simply by opening their laptops or personal data assistants. However, two Chicago-area McDonald's franchisees have taken the next step: offering computer stations and Internet classes for their local communities. Why do they do it? One store-owner explains that his clientele, which includes a large number of economically disadvantaged folks, would otherwise lack access to the information and entertainment easily available to other populations in other regions. Without even having to purchase a small order of french fries, visitors waiting for the bus near Herb Bias' McDonald's can check out the World Wide Web just by signing up for a block of time at one of his store computer terminals: “People's time is precious. So why not give them the opportunity where they can have breakfast and do some computer work at the same time while they're in transit” (Jackson, 2003, p. 71)? Ideally, of course, patrons will sample the store's cuisine before logging off to hit the road, but even if they don't, McDonald's restaurants' experiments into free and (at other locations) low-cost Internet access will likely earn dividends in good will.

It is clear to many observers of Internet communication and commerce that this medium will have the same impact on national and global economy as the introduction of locomotives to the 19th-century world. Black (1999) quotes former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold: “E-commerce is an enormous equalizer__It does not matter if you are in Dakar or Bombay. The Internet will be as important for the next 100 years as the railroad was for the last 100 years” (p. C2). Yet for many people, the Internet remains inaccessible.

Is access to information networks a human right, the same as access to food, clothing, and shelter? Many online activists say yes. Describing the work of groups such as Women Information and Technology, Spender (1998) illustrates an emerging goal: to increase informacy in the same manner as we seek to increase literacy, to ensure that all peoples—across the country and around the globe—enjoy the same opportunites to go online as most people reading this book.


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