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Technology Threatens to Divide Us Further

By Cynthia Van Ness, © 1995

Originally published in the Buffalo News, March 13, 1995, p. B2, with the inaccurate headline "Information Threatens to Divide Us Further." Was this editorial prophetic or pathetic? You decide.


Since Newt Gingrich is known for advocating slashes in social spending, it is mind-boggling to learn of his pious, hand-wringing concern for the information poor, as reported by William F. Buckley (Viewpoints, Feb. 28, 1995). We librarians have known of and been fighting this disturbing development ever since the mass-production of the microchip, if not earlier. It has always been the mission of that quintessential American invention, the public library, to make knowledge available, free of charge, to all citizens.

Mr. Buckley proposes that the private development and dissemination of portable computers and electronic books would somehow end the "have" and "have-not" dilemma. The creation of new "information-wealthy" and "information-poor" classes seems to me partly the result of overdigitization. By this I mean the sudden reduction in diversity of knowledge formats; from paper-based books, magazines, newspapers, indexes and images; from celluloid-based motion pictures, microfilms and sound recordings; from speech-based forms such as storytelling and oral history, to solely digital, electronic forms, requiring ever more numerous and costly computers.

As information becomes increasingly captive to digital technology, it also becomes heavily privatized. Only the wealthy can buy in and keep up. Ecological principles are also illuminating in a discussion of information formats: A monoculture is as risky for information environments as it is for biological and social ones.

Our unjust information economy, however, has less to do with technological imperatives and more to do with our social priorities. Mr. Buckley quotes David Rothman's proposal: "The best machine should be light, have color and sound, and a minimum storage space of at least one gigabyte -- that's enough to store hundreds of books the size of 'Gone With The Wind.' "

I have startling news for Mr. Rothman. We already possess, free of charge -- evenly distributed regardless of race, sex, class or national origin -- devices of easier portability, greater memory capacity, and lovelier sound and color than Mr. Rothman imagines. They are the human brain.

If we, as a society, are unable or unwilling to equitably share the centuries of information already stored in a format that has proven cheap, sturdy and long-lasting (when made properly); easy to manufacture, distribute, repair and replace; a format that is wonderfully interactive and requires only a brain to access it -- the ordinary printed book -- then we will hardly do better with "telebooks," a classic example of overdigitization if ever there was one.

Buckley's and Rothman's brave new world is a society in which someone probably can't "access" much information at all without the right machine -- a vision that scares me.

Lest anyone accuse me of technophobia, I am an enthusiastic user of Buffalo Freenet and just about any computer within reach. But Mr. Rothman's cure is deadlier than the disease he purports to treat. To end information apartheid, we need more social justice, not more electronic technology. We can start by ending the budgetary starvation of our public libraries.


Updated 18 March 2010
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