Info-Won’ts, or Success for (Computer) Dummies

You don’t hear as much about it lately, but in the early 1990s (this piece was originally written in 1995 and published on the HotWired forums) there was a big controversy over whether inequal access to technology (e.g., home computers, Internet access) would reinforce existing social and economic inequalities, and, if so, what (if anything) government should do about it.

Since then, depending on your political persuasion the problem has either been solved (by $10/month Internet access) or swept under the table (along with any other actual or potential government program serving the poor). I happen to think that the question is still relevant, but that the typical answers are inadequate. Here’s what I wrote at the time (with URLs updated where the old ones no longer worked):

Good comments from people so far; my response is mainly concerned with the role of technology in determining who gets what in terms of wealth, social position, etc.

First, an addendum to Alexis Olson’s mention of Newt Gingrich’s “give laptops to the poor” comment. I don’t know where Gingrich got this idea, but for quite some time now David Rothman has been pushing his TeleRead proposal, which entails doing exactly that. It’s actually not a stupid idea at all if you think about it in Rothman’s terms, but unfortunately it’s also a proposal that is tailor-made to attract derisive comment of the type Rush Limbaugh and others specialize in. Gingrich (no dummy he) no doubt realized this as soon as he’d said it, which is probably why we haven’t heard anything more about it since then.

However, there are in fact strong grounds for doubting that giving laptops (or ISDN, or whatever) to the poor will in and of itself do anything to help them, and my reasons for thinking so build on Chad Irby’s and Alex Fayle’s comments on the “infowonts”, i.e., people who choose not to learn about or to use technology.

I am not saying that the poor won’t succeed because they won’t learn technology even if you gave it to them (because they’ve been corrupted by government giveaways and “elite McGovernik” social values, blah, blah, blah…see George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and of course Newt Gingrich himself if you haven’t had your fill of this by now), and therefore you might as well save your money. This position is simply taking a common-sense statement (access to technology does not necessarily translate into any personal use of or benefit from it) and twisting it to advance a narrow political agenda (“cut my taxes”).

Rather I believe, first, that being an “infowont” is not necessarily a stupid thing. There are lots of people I know who are quite successful and who couldn’t care less about computer technology in and of itself. Their success depends not on upon their grasp of technology but upon their grasp of people and social relationships. Computers to them are simply a tool, as telephones, FAX machines and CNN are tools: to be used when necessary, to be ignored when not.

Second, I believe that the closer to the top of society you go, the more important social relationships become and the less important is knowledge of technology (“not what you know, but who you know” as the cliche puts it). In my life I have met a number of fairly powerful people both in the corporate world and outside of it. Their major concerns were who could do things for them, who could do things to them, who they knew and who they should get to know, and (most important) whom they could trust and whom they couldn’t. The better they could play this game, the more power they accumulated. If they needed to know something about technology, they paid someone to look it up and net it out for them.

This in essense is why I believe that the traditional “info-haves vs. info-havenots” debate is wrong-headed (and so susceptible to parody): having access to technology and information is not in and of itself going to help poor people move up in society, because in general they don’t have access to the social relationships necessary to translate that information into wealth and social position. (A related point here is that when upper-middle-class parents put their newborn children on waiting lists for exclusive schools, their primary concern is often not what their children might learn, it’s who their children might meet.)

There are exceptions to this, of course; there will always be Horatio Alger stories where poor people can translate hard work and fortuitous circumstances (“pluck and luck” as the stories have it) into wealth and success. George Gilder has written some good and inspiring ones for the current technological revolution, of which The Issaquah Miracle is the exemplar. I just don’t believe that these tell the whole story; I believe they’re better thought of as anecdotes (“miracle stories,” if you will) intended to win support for a general faith in salvation through technology.

I’m not totally pessimistic about the benefits of technology and the power of the Net, though. (If I were, I wouldn’t be involved in community network activities.) For example, I think the Net is a great way for people to build social relationships with people whom they otherwise would never meet. Coupled with face-to-face relationships (e.g., in school, work, church, volunteer activities, etc.) this could offer opportunities for social advancement to many people who currently have little or none. But the key phrase here is “coupled with face-to-face relationships”; I believe that a person’s “offline” social relationships are still going to be a key determinant of their success, and except for the Net most of the rest of society seems to be moving toward lessening interaction between social classes rather than increasing it. The growth of online relationships should counteract this tendency but I don’t yet believe it’s sufficient to overcome it.

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