With the Google Fiber announcement behind us, and the city’s infrastructure work ahead of us, it’s time to take stock of what the “fiberhood” movement really means for our community. The annual Google I/O, a developer-focused conference to be held Thursday with a related event in Charlotte, provides an opportunity to think more deeply about the value proposition of software development and the build of new apps.
Coding has cultural value; it can define possibilities. The emerging conversation about Google product innovation coincides with the buzz surrounding the introduction of a broad fiberoptic network in Charlotte. But as we celebrate, and as the partnership takes shape, we must consider what it really means to transform our information ecosystem.
Fiber is a conduit, but what is the fabric that holds our families, neighborhoods and communities together? What does the connected city look like? How do we make technology relevant to the residents of our cities? Do our goals of universal adoption include practical policies for digital literacy and inclusion? These are important questions, especially in light of data that show almost 20 percent of Americans lack advanced Internet access, and almost 30 percent of adults are not digitally ready – they won’t know how to move forward once they are connected.
Here in Charlotte, the uneven access to technology has been aggravated by the uneven distribution of basic digital literacy skills. These gaps in infrastructure and knowledge have created geographic pockets of disenfranchisement that have had a ripple effect across the city. Knight School research shows that more than 40 percent of residents in certain communities in the west region of Mecklenburg County do not use the Internet anywhere – a drop off rate more than twice the national average. These “information deserts” are home to real communities, real families with disproportionately less income and education, where cost is cited as the biggest obstacle to digital literacy. The digital divide is leaving some of our citizens behind, and the impact is being felt in our public schools, in the work force, and in our communities. If we are going to truly realize our potential as a city, we need to invest in complementary programs for digital inclusion and digital readiness, and we need to build fiscally sustainable bridges between tech entrepreneurship and civic life.
A digitally literate populace
We know that climbing out of poverty is a bigger struggle in Charlotte than in other large U.S. cities; Charlotte ranks last among the country’s 50 largest metro areas for upward mobility, according to researchers at Harvard, UC Berkeley and the Treasury Department. The digital divide exacerbates that challenge.
Here at the Knight School of Communication, we believe our city can reap the economic and democratic benefits of a digitally literate populace bolstered by a vibrant tech community, collectively engaged with new forms of information flow. Opportunity depends on literacy and innovation. The Knight School has been working with our libraries, neighborhoods and schools to host a series of workshops aimed at building applied digital skills; and we have used these gatherings to engage neighbors and families in conversation, to understand what matters most to our residents, and to identify and solve real information challenges. In March, we hosted a public conversation focused on moving forward to “Charlotte 2025: The Connected City.” This gathering of best minds from the fields of education, business, cultural production and civic engagement was a necessary step in developing a strategic vision for our city – engaging diverse yet complementary sectors, and launching a Digital Inclusion Steering Committee of city-wide stakeholders.
As our fiberhoods develop – as the conduit is buried beneath our streets – we must identify advocates and trainers, connect fiber to actual devices, and frame information flow as a fundamental and inclusive right. We must make fiber relevant to our citizens. We need to more broadly consider why fiber matters. To this end, we need to work alongside independent software developers and support our local startup community. Only then can we mend the gap between digital haves and have-nots. A connected city can be an educated, engaged, and economically and socially mobile city, but only if those connections are universal and meaningful. Only by accelerating digital literacy and innovation can we fully realize the promise of a connected city.
Dr. Eric Freedman is the Dean of the Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte.