Published on Friday, June 23, 2006 by the San Francisco Chronicle
From Digital Divide to Digital Enlightenment
by Paul Lamb
I dreamed last night that a new era had arrived in the United States, a kind of digital enlightenment. We, as a nation, had developed a national technology plan -- a plan that makes electronic eavesdropping illegal and supports a stable, neutral and secure technology backbone that we can all equally benefit from.
In my dream, technology was an essential infrastructure for opportunity -- as important as the roadways, public buildings and school systems. I dreamed that all people, regardless of age, ethnicity, education, physical or economic capability, could tap seamlessly into a stream of knowledge and creativity unlike any the world had ever seen. Not only did people access information in a dynamic virtual library, but they also became the authors of its volumes -- individually or collectively.
They could innovate anywhere, anytime and in ways previously unimaginable, because they had free access to technology, the tools to get connected and the knowledge of how to use them.
In the dream, the federal government had joined with industry to create and support the Digital Opportunity Drive. A national broadband Internet platform had been rolled out, blanketing the nation with a public digital highway that supported voice, video and data exchange at super-fast speeds and through a single standard. State and local governments had partnered with industry, communities and nonprofit groups to offer training and tools to their respective and unique populations.
The local public libraries, schools and community centers opened their own Digital Opportunity Centers. These centers were widespread and fully equipped spaces where anyone could come to learn about the latest and greatest technology. All of these centers were supported through the private sector, in exchange for the rights to set up community-based shops operating out of the centers. In my dream, the Digital Opportunity Centers eventually got themselves out of the access and training business and then transformed into thriving virtual town halls, online and offline village squares and places for face-to-face community organizing.
The digital enlightenment also saw the growth of democratic activity as a variety of online and community-based kiosks allowed people to vote and express their opinions directly and instantaneously to governments and policy-makers. Politicians were informed, in real time, of the mood and views of their constituencies; elections were immediate and more participatory, as voting could occur any place and any time.
The dream ended with a vision of people from all walks of life feeling more connected and empowered than ever before. I saw the disabled and seniors living full and productive lives in the world without worrying about how to move physically from place to place or how to keep up with technology changes. I saw the poor and socially isolated rejoining the mainstream, self-sufficient and filled with hope. I saw average citizens and new immigrants alike forsaking fear and doubt in the pursuit of a vibrant and now fully wired American dream.
Then, I woke up.
I remembered that technology cannot solve all of our problems, and is really nothing more than a tool in our imperfect hands. But there is no denying that technology is the single-most important tool driving economic growth in the United States, and that doesn't even begin to take into account how technology and the Internet have become an integral and essential part of all of our lives.
The real sleeper is that we have yet to fully acknowledge that technology is the infrastructure of the 21st century. Part of the reason that we rank 16th worldwide in terms of broadband penetration is because our leaders are content to let the market, localities and consumers figure it all out on their own. Meanwhile, Asian and European countries charge ahead with innovative public technology projects that are leaving us in the dust.
Let's not put off a national technology strategy any longer. Let's move beyond the digital divide and digital denial once and for all. Let's stop dreaming about it and move with purpose and planning toward a true digital enlightenment in our time.
© 2006 San Francisco Chronicle