Friday, March 7, 2014

On the Disconnect of the Powerful

David Cay Johnston, “Phone service for all, no matter what kind,”  28 March 2012. URL to article: <>

Martin Kaste, “Is it the end of the line for the landline?” NPR All Tech Considered. 18 Nov. 2013. URL to article: < >

I’ve included these 2 short news articles to supplement (and highlight the lack of social and political context in) John Horrigan’s article on the consequences of being disconnected in a broadband world.  Both the NPR piece by Martin Kaste  and David Cay Johnston’s piece focus on another kind of disconnect in which landlines (and their infrastructure) will be allowed to decay (as they become less profitable for the phone monopolies) and as a seemingly feckless FCC allows corporate interests to abandon any responsibility to the public good. The trend appears to be that landlines will no longer be “a provider of last resort” and, if the major monopolies have any say, neither will broadband.  Johnston’s article is more pointed in addressing the abuse of power and provides a more damning portrait of the long term trend of abandoning regulations that provide a modicum of consumer and public protection from the effects of corporate behavior in pursuit of profit, taxpayer subsidy, and market domination. (Note: what follows is a critique of the Horrigan article; it's a bit of a rant, but read on if interested. Otherwise, just see the supplemental articles above.)

I did a double take when reading Horrigan’s  statement, almost halfway into the article (23), in which he says, “As consequential as having broadband access is (or seems to be) these days, it is important to resist the temptation to think about broadband as something everyone has to have. A necessity is not a requirement.” And this is after demonstrating how if you don’t adopt broadband, you’re basically f…..inished, because you won’t be able to apply for a job, get medical care, health information, or communicate with your local government, not to mention, that you’ll be a major burden on society. No pressure, though, just social opprobrium and market forces. 

If "we" are not abandoning “equity arguments” why isn’t cost front and center to Horrigan’s discussion, since this is the major barrier to adoption (24)? Funny how the barriers for which I’d think the FCC might be best equipped to help the non-adopting public cope (cost and privacy/security issues), get short shrift.  Sure, who can disagree with (a pretty vague) commitment to broadband promotion (in which we have nothing to fear in adopting and everything to fear in not) and education/training to increase our collective digital literacy? As librarians, who could oppose “providing resources for the development of skills to negotiate cyberspace (29)”? I just wouldn’t count on resources coming anytime soon (as the Public Library study shows), at least from federal, state or strapped local governments. 

I suppose we must go hat in hand to our corporate benefactors and their charitable foundations (no strings attached, of course), many of which no longer feel any obligation to actually pay corporate income tax.  In the age of austerity, when Obama neoliberals and ALEC join hands on many issues, I’d bet the tendency will be to attribute the digital divide to a failure of personal responsibility, which Horrigan’s argument nicely foreshadows, and “those left behind will forgo a range of benefits (29)” that a rational person might expect as part of the social wage in a rich and civilized society.  As for expectations, we might ask, how is it that so many OECD (and non-OECD?) countries provide much better and more affordable broadband access? (Note: there’s disagreement on this performance point with John Horrigan and Richard Bennett arguing that the US is doing great  and others begging to differ (See NYT 12/30/13  and the BBC 10/28/13).

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