Monday, June 19, 2023

The Internet Changed Everything

Lupač opens his 2018 article “BeyondThe Digital Divide: Contextualizing the Information Society” with “the internet has changed everything.” Lupač isn’t wrong. In five words, he has described the quake at the foundation of society, one that shook everything loose and positioned information -- and our access to it -- into the very center of how we live our daily lives. In the five years since Lupač wrote this understatement of the century, the everyday reliance on the internet has become more entrenched and entwined than ever. For Example: Before we catch the bus to work or school, we check the weather--on our phones, or increasingly on our watches-- to see if we need an umbrella or a jacket; we expect a digital assistant or text alert to let us know if the bus is running late or if there have been changes to routes or fares; on the bus, we can pay with tokens or cards or, increasingly, tap our phones or watches for the bus fare; once at work or school, we log in to various devices to participate, either by downloading information that we will work with for the tasks at hand, or by uploading content, and frequently our work is more collaborative that ever, collaborations that take place in the digital sphere, separate from the physical space we might occupy. 
The more important and central an item is, the more likely it is to be necessarily located in the digital landscape: banking, medical, groceries, transportation. These fundamental aspects of living are inherently digital, many of them not available offline or even by telephone. 
I have a friend who runs an intentional community in the mountains. Founded in 1974, there was no electricity or other civic infrastructure such as public water. In the last decade, the community set up a small battery of solar panels specifically to run a modem and router so that there could be a small but meaningful amount of internet available. When I asked why this mattered enough to be part of the community infrastructure, he told me it was no less important to human thriving in the community than the tools collected for the large community garden: it was a necessary tool to support daily survival. 
Bridging the digital divide is essential, and libraries have always held this to be a core for their vision as well as their mission: providing information itself, but also providing access to it is a fundamental tenet of libraries and librarianship. Why? “A better understanding of the mechanisms behind the societal proliferation of ICT can serve to provide clearer insight into deeper underlying issues, such as how human societies shape their material infrastructures and how these infrastructures are interconnected with such inherently sociological issues as social inequality, social change and social structures.” (Lupač 2018, p3). As all of society has transformed from a knowledge society to an information one, the library has likewise transformed from being an information provider to a social equalizer, such as it has the capacity to do so. 
Along the way, libraries, like all social institutions, are caught in the web of how we present the tools of this new society-- are we making choices that re-present the inequalities, or possibly even entrench the inequalities we hope to eradicate? What options exist for information providers such as the library to level the playing field? Budget constraints are conversations librarians and information architects are frequently not privy to and have no voice in, yet these are the very discussions that are essential in overcoming the digital divide and presenting information as a solution and not as a weapon of inequality and disenfranchisement, no matter how innocent or well-meaning the designs might be.
As my investigation of information society issues enters its third decade, I’m more aware than ever of how physical community remains important to the landscape of human thriving. I continue to see the real-time, real-life benefits and enrichment of in-person community events and sharing. Frequently during our deployment of informational, digital tools, the landscape of the in-person reality is getting deprioritized, sidelined, and at times lost. I think of the digital solutions that were employed during the pandemic, as schools and offices scrambled to replicate normalcy and enable the work of daily life to continue during a social shutdown. The digital divide was on full display especially in education, as students who had the economic resources for high-speed internet and quality laptops were able to participate nearly fully, while less advantaged students often fell out of the curriculum altogether. 
I think it’s essential that we as information professionals keep a balance between providing information tools and using community placement and partnership to enhance and enrich in-person programming. Being an information society means we have a responsibility to address the societal needs of our communities and patrons through information, not just to deliver data. It’s also important to discern how the delivery of data connectivity carries and creates its own inherent assumptions of access and digital privilege.