Leading from the Left

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Technology and Socio-economic status

Last week, I wrote about the need to hire a new county manager who understands information technology and how it’s changing government. My point was that Americans now conduct a significant part of our personal and business lives through the internet, and Orange County citizens expect our county government to make full use of technological innovations. These innovations can lead to more efficient delivery of services and more effective communications.

My writings on this subject elicited enough response that I decided to expand the conversation a little and talk about the economic impact of technology innovations—specifically, who’s getting left behind and what we can do about it as a community.

I believe it’s important, as our society moves deeper into the age of information technology, that we ensure these changes are available evenly across our economy. Is it JUST for a moral society to leave behind folks at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum as we continue on our path into an internet-based economy?

I worry about schoolkids who live in families that can’t afford computers, or who may have a computer but can’t afford the monthly fees for an internet provider. How will these kids be able to keep up in school as more and more research and homework assignments are done on the internet? Will they be permanently disadvantaged as their peers grow up with information technology embedded as a part of their daily lives?

As these children mature and enter the workforce, will there be an economic divide between those who have deep familiarity with information technology and those who don’t? My fear is that children who come from families with access to technology may succeed while others are left behind.

Some say that if kids don’t have computers at home, they can go to public libraries for internet access or to complete home work assignments the old fashioned way—book learnin’. But the practical problem with that is that many of our kids locally who need that access to computers outside of school hours—evenings and weekends—do not live close enough to public libraries to reasonably avail themselves of those services.

We need to fully fund the Orange County Library Task Force recommendations so all county residents have equitable access to information technology and text resources.

If elected to the Orange County Board of Commissioners I will search for ways to extend access to information technology to citizens who don’t currently have it. They shouldn’t be left behind in our new economy. Of course, one local government, acting alone, can’t resolve this issue. But we can do our share—provide leadership and vision for a new, more inclusive community.

For starters, I think we need to begin treating information technology as an infrastructure like any other. Like sidewalks, streetlights and water/sewer, governments should ensure that access to information technology is available to all regardless of socio-economic status. Carrboro’s wireless downtown wireless network, which I spear-headed as mayor, is one example of how local government can show leadership on this issue.

I’m looking forward to continuing this dialog as the campaign progresses.