Finding the ‘digitally distant’

Minnesotans have been debating for years now how to extend the reach of high-speed Internet access to everyone.

The federal government is spending millions to extend fiber to remote areas; phone and cable companies have spent similarly to compete in more populated territory; local communities, telephone and electric cooperatives, city and county officials, economic development authorities, advocacy groups and others have argued sharply over issues of marketplace vs public good and how fast is fast enough.

But as important as this question of adding to the infrastructure is, there's another way to look at the digital divide. Even in outstate Minnesota, where Internet adoption is slightly lower than in the Twin Cities, 64 percent of households have high-speed Internet access. That's a pretty hefty portion of the 74 percent of households that have a computer.

And that makes you realize the digital divide is more than an infrastructure question -- giving all those home computers a fast Internet connection. It's also a question of getting a sizable part of the population to adopt computer habits at all.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Jack Geller, professor at the University of Minnesota Crookston and a long-time participant in this debate, calls these people the "digitally distant" -- elderly, low-income, disabled, people of color, by and large.

"Social and economic barriers really represent the digital divide more than geographic factors," Geller told a gathering in Brainerd Thursday, a conference put on by the Blandin Foundation to explore what it calls the need for a "culture of use."

"These are the people we really have to go after."

To that end, Blandin gave the floor to a handful of people whose organizations are devoted to getting technology into the hands of people who otherwise wouldn't get it.

Sam Drong of PCs for People said his organization refurbished and distributed 2,000 personal computers to low-income people in Minnesota last year. The group is aiming for 3,000 this year.

Mark Skeie of Age4Action addressed what some people may have been thinking -- what does it matter if people in their 60s, 70s and 80s choose not to get on the information highway? They, too, are seeing government services like Social Security and Medicare become increasingly reliant on Internet access, and advances in remote diagnostic health care can promote the money- and anxiety-saving ability to stay in one's home.

Tom Lehman, a technology consultant who suffers from hearing loss, talked about the expense of left-out feeling people with disabilities have to deal with. He can't get news online from CNN, for example, as that organization makes video more of its online presence -- they don't provide captions.

And Steven Renderos, of the MainStreet project, explained his organization's effort to get computer power into the hands of people of color by means of easy-to-use visual and audio storytelling projects.

As a recipient of federal stimulus money, Blandin is working with 11 communities around the state, encouraging them to find ways to encourage familiarity with computers and the Internet.

It's easy to forget, as we get wrapped in enthusiasm and argument over each new wave of phone, tablet and transmission technology and as we wave our arms in wonder over the revolution in thinking and interacting that technology brings, that there are people being passed by who don't want to be and who shouldn't be.