The Digital Divide is About to Get Smaller

by Mark Emerson

The electrification of rural America in the 1930’s and 40’s went unnoticed by most people in large metropolitan areas, but it was a life-changing event for the people in those communities.

Tasks that took most of the day now could be done in hours. Studying and reading by candlelight or oil lamps, which would have looked no different to someone hundreds of years earlier, were a thing of the past.

No less momentous is the current effort to bring broadband internet to many of these same communities (in many cases by the same electrical coops formed so many years ago during the New Deal programs to electrify rural America). Why is this such a big deal worthy of discussion in regards to our culture? Because information is power. And connectivity is going to prove to be just as important as those first wires laid down over 70 years ago.

There has been such a growing divide in the United States, both economically and culturally. People in large cities have been used to having information readily available, be it at home, at work or at their local coffee house. Imagine the same level of information available in the farthest reaches of the country. People who come from smaller towns and want to both stay in their communities and make a decent living may soon no longer have to make that difficult decision of where to live. Who knows what new businesses will arise when the entrepreneurialism and vitality of small-town America connect to the rest of the digital community?

Businesses that couldn’t advertise beyond their local community will become a part of the global marketplace. Small businesses that wasted hours upon hours ordering parts and supplies will now have the world market at their fingertips. Consumers who have never known Amazon or Netflix will have an amazing expansion of choice and convenience. Businesses that may want to locate facilities in lower-cost communities will no longer have to say no because there is no digital infrastructure.

While these examples are all concrete ‘benefits’ to rural businesses and consumers, they are just one aspect of the ways in which many of our previously unplugged citizens will become connected to their regional, national and global communities.

There are truly life-changing events that everyone goes ‘wow!’ For many of those in major population centers, one of those moments was back in 1994, when the internet first became widely accessible. For a sizeable portion of our citizens (15% as referenced in a study by the Brookings Institute last year), that moment hasn’t come yet.

From a cultural perspective, I think that we need as many of our fellow citizens as possible participating in our national conversation and the free flow of information is something to champion. I also believe that there are many incredible ideas that die on the vine because they can’t find the digital daylight. Finally, I know there are fantastic things happening throughout our country that pass without notice from most people, yet ultimately hold tremendous promise for us as a national community and connect us all into a more digitally-perfect union.


Originally published at gothamculture.com on September 1, 2016.

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