Magazine article American Libraries

Aunt Ruth's Trunk: A Futuristic Scenario about the Information Rich-Poor Gap

Magazine article American Libraries

Aunt Ruth's Trunk: A Futuristic Scenario about the Information Rich-Poor Gap

Article excerpt

What does a precocious 14-year-old girl in the year 2010 tell her diary? She talks about "Omnitel," the multimedia interactive communication device--a combination of telephone, television, and computer--that is as ubiquitous then as the TV and telephone are today. Rather than inputting the diary entry by keyboard, she speaks the entry into her "PAD," a Personal Access Device similar to a smaller and more versatile version of today's notebook computer. Her "public information center" is the equivalent of today's public library, and her diary entry one evening sounds like this:

Dear Diary,

Today Mr. McVicar, my social studies teacher, gave us an assignment to go out and see how people communicate. He said, "Get off your behinds, and quit interacting with the Omnitel for a change. Report on ways people communicate with each other today and compare it with what was done 20 to 30 years ago." He told us to talk with an older person, someone who remembers what it was like when all the changes started taking place in how we communicate; when the giant monopoly AT&T was broken up into smaller companies and when they started to compete for their services; and when lots of new technologies and services started to be available. Then he says we're supposed to write a report about it.

Well, this isn't going to be too hard. My Great Aunt Ruth--she's about 60 years old--she's always talking about how things were "back then." And she's such a know-it-all.

But I think I'll start my report by talking about my new friend Sandy. She goes to one of those fancy private schools--the ones you have to go through three gates to get into. I met her when her school decided to adopt my school--one of those programs where we get to go to their school once a month. It's because we're so poor, says Aunt Ruth, and they feel sorry for us. We get to use all their neat stuff--stuff we don't have at my school.

Aunt Ruth calls my school one of those "blankety blank" company schools. She uses a lot of bad words that I can't put in my report. But what she really means to say is that it's a public school where the company has donated all the materials--all the Omnitels and PADs, the learning stations, the instruction modules, the multimedia books in the information center, even the games. Everything so we can go out, she says, and be good little company robots when we're done. And have minds as interesting as oatmeal.

Aunt Ruth complains that the information center only has stuff that the company will allow--in other words, nothing critical. She says she tried to donate a couple of her multimedia books once--where she talks about the old-fashioned idea of democracy and how important it is for many different kinds of ideas to be talked about and for people to freely express their opinions. The information center wasn't interested--too out of date, they said.

I disagreed with Aunt Ruth on this--and it's not easy to argue with her. I said I thought lots of ideas and opinions are being expressed. What about all those video programs on the Omnitel, all those hundreds of channels, all those people we can talk to on the Network from all over the world?

A relic of the past

That's when she really starts using her bad language. She says, "How many programs do you see that are critical of the company?" She uses the word "company" to mean those big worldwide corporations that sell us all kinds of things and create the programs that are on the Omnitel. And how many programs let "real people"--she talks about real people as though they're dinosaurs--how many programs let real people say what they really want to say? And news, she says, is a relic of the past--at least any programs where people express different opinions and talk freely about their ideas.

When she really gets wound up, she asks me if I've talked to anyone from Africa or India lately. She doesn't wait for me to answer, as usual, and says, "Of course not. …

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