September 5, 2007

How the Other Half Goes Online

A couple of recent stories about computer training for “the poor” reminded me to look up Jacob Riis’s classic tenement exposé “How the Other Half Lives,” originally published in 1890. The closing chapter, What has been done includes the following lines: “[T]hough the problem stands yet unsolved, more perplexing than ever; though the bright spots in the dreary picture be too often bright only by comparison…we can dimly discern behind it all that good is somehow working out of even this slough of despond…”

What’s fascinating to me is that some of the institutions created in the 19th century to fight the “slough of despond” are not only still around but adapting to the latest needs of each city’s residents. For example, Chicago’s Erie Neighborhood House, founded in 1870, provides technology training for low-income residents. New York City’s Union Settlement House, founded in 1895, offers computer training classes along with their other extensive social service programs.

Philadelphia is going a different route to the same hoped-for destination of digital opportunity for all by creating a 21st century organization, Wireless Philadelphia. These days, the digital “other half” is likely to be the 15% of adults who are “off the network” but their situation stands in deep contrast to how most Americans connect to communications technology.