Lagging connections in rural areas are a drag on Minnesota's prosperity

Aaron J. Brown
Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range writer, radio commentator and college instructor.
Submitted photo

By Aaron J. Brown

When you have a blog in greater Minnesota, you're used to explaining a great many things. For instance:

A blog is not a cancerous tumor, nor is it radioactive in any way.

A blog does not necessarily have pornography on it.

A blog does not inherently destroy the fabric of society through deceit and inflammatory rhetoric. (See above.)

In fact, explaining that one has a blog is a bit like saying "I have a time machine." The response is generally some version of the Minnesota "Ohhhh, I see."

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Of course, a blog is just a website. The website is updated often to reflect timely content on a subject of the author's choosing. I write about regional news and feature topics at MinnesotaBrown.com. My wife writes about frugal living and coupons at NorthernCheapskate.com. Blog readership has been coalescing around a smaller number of blogs, sometimes written by unique writers, but usually by embittered professionals who've established themselves in traditional ways. Blogs now represent a fixed point in the new media landscape abutted by the raging river of social media. That they would require any explanation to a rural county commissioner or school board member highlights a big problem.

A significant number of people where I live on the Iron Range, and in many of the small towns and rural areas around the state, have only just begun learning this technology. Some never will. The demographic mix explains this neatly. As 2010 census data shows, our population in northern Minnesota hasn't been shrinking so much as aging -- dramatically -- as the place becomes more of a retirement haven or late-career destination.

A more concerning trend, however, isn't the slow acceptance of online connectedness by the older generation, but the general lack of Internet fluency by the whole population. Even some of my younger students at the community college lack an email account or a strong understanding of how to use search engines. At my relatively Internet-friendly age of 31, my online contact with most of my high school friends takes place through their wives' Facebook accounts because they don't want their own.

That's in keeping with a 2010 Center for Rural Policy and Development study showing a delay in Internet use in greater Minnesota, especially in counties without large population centers. Some of this is cultural and economic; a great deal of it has to do with infrastructure and access. Minneapolis, by comparison, was placed in the top five among the best connected, most socially networked cities in the nation, according to a study compiled in Men's Health.

As the Internet becomes a more important part of not only our economy but our culture and political system, the divide between rural and metro Internet use could widen the existing gap between urban and rural areas.

My wife and I are both ex-print reporters who now make a living using the Internet to create educational, journalistic and feature content. We live in northern Minnesota by choice, a choice made easier by our knowing the culture well enough to understand the challenges. It's easy for people like us to see how close a region like this could be to attracting creative types who seek inexpensive housing, attractive surroundings and good schools.

Close, but not there yet. As my fellow Iron Ranger Robert Zimmerman might say, the answer is downloadin' in the wind. The digital gap is both wide and dangerous for Minnesota's future, especially out here in the sticks.

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Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range writer, radio commentator and college instructor. He is the author of the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and the book "Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range."