The week of June 26, 2016

The internet and its disconnects

By Jesse Hicks

For those of us who have a hard time remembering a world without the internet (or who never experienced those benighted times), it can be easy to forget that ubiquitous digital connectivity isn’t actually a reality. There are still unwired places and disconnected people. Sometimes we refer to the gap between the internet haves and have-nots as the “digital divide,” but there are actually many digital divides, many varieties of connectivity. In this issue of the Kernel, we’re looking at who’s not connected and why, and what that might mean.

First, Christine Ro looks at Romania. After the fall of communism in the late 1980s, an entrepreneurial spirit gripped the country, leading (eventually) to a proliferation of internet service providers. Competition drove prices down and speeds up, helping to make it one of the most connected nations in Europe. You may even have seen that nine of the top 15 cities with the fastest broadband internet access are in Romania. A number of unique historical, geographical, and technological factors made that possible, but as Ro details, there’s one thing that’s keeping many older Romanians offline: culture. Seeing the internet as the province young urban professionals with white collar jobs, many of this older, often more rural generation—those for whom Ceaușescu is still a living memory—consider it irrelevant to their lives. That’s led to a peculiar situation: a country striving to make internet access available to all its citizens, while still trying to convince many that they actually need it.

In the United States, there’s probably less effort required to convince people of the value of internet access. But we’ve got a long way to go to match Romania’s low-cost, high-speed, nearly ubiquitous service. That means Americans, often rural and poor, can still find themselves struggling to get connected. Kari Paul examines Lifeline, a program described as “our No. 1 tool for confronting the digital divide” for helping those in poverty get online. What began with largely bipartisan support has in recent years become more politicized and controversial. Despite glowing testimonials from those it’s helped, the Lifeline program has been hit with what supporters say are overblown claims of fraud and abuse. It’s become the target of defunding attempts, with partisans split predictably into camps of supporters and detractors, leaving Lifeline’s future unclear.

Finally, Rachel Martin looks at Teach for Tomorrow, a teacher-training program currently deployed in Ghana. It uses videoconferencing to coach teachers on new pedagogical methods, going beyond the rote memorization typically employed in the country. Those teachers should then spread their knowledge in what’s hoped will be a virtuous chain, enabling them to quickly transform the country’s schools. It’s an ambitious program, and as Martin points out, even educators can be seduced by the allure of a shiny gadget. Will Teach for Tomorrow be successful, and is it sustainable? Martin thinks the program goes beyond merely dropping technology into a situation and hoping for a miraculous fix, but obviously only time will tell.

Enjoy the issue.