I work with a publishing house that, like many other companies, is trying to move as much of its workforce as possible into virtual situations in response to the coronavirus pandemic. I became aware this past week of something of a scramble to find a laptop for a woman in Purchasing to take home with her. When I asked what had come of it, the response was, “It doesn’t matter; she doesn’t have an Internet connection.”
I was a little shocked to hear it. I know, of course, about the depth of the digital divide — back in the late 90s and early aughts I was writing PSA scripts for organizations like the Boston Foundation, Tech Goes Home, Tech Boston, and the Urban League, raising awareness of the problem and its implications for social justice. And I know the divide is still there, that it has if anything gotten worse, and that current efforts in the pandemic to teach remotely have only underlined the disenfranchisement of so many children on the wrong side of the divide.
But that’s not the issue here. I know this woman. She lives in a suburban area well-served by Internet providers and could afford to be connected to them. She has, apparently, chosen not to be.
That choice is as foreign to me as would be the practice of eating dogs or living in trees. I was an early technology adopter and remember my amazement at my first modem and the possibilities it unlocked. I now spend nearly all of my work time and a good portion of my leisure time connected to the Internet and using it in a variety of ways. It has expanded my horizons, brought me close to people I would never have otherwise encountered, and opened up worlds I couldn’t even conceive existed. To not have the Internet would impoverish my life so significantly that it is, frankly, unimaginable.
So I struggle to understand the choice to forgo it.
I understand that in the best of times, when we’re not practicing social distancing in the midst of a pandemic, not using the Internet can be a good choice. Going for a walk, enjoying the company of other people, going to events are all healthy ways to spend one’s leisure. So I understand that the choice of not using the Internet at given times is a good one; choosing to not have access to it, though, is something else altogether.
Is there somewhere inside us an atavistic fear of something from outside coming inside? When we lived in caves and drew a line to keep the wild out, we must also have lived in fear that somehow, despite our best precautions, the wild would come in. Does privacy feel like privacy only when there is no possibility of it being violated? And does such a possibility really exist?
I am unable to understand that kind of self-isolation. I want to call her (for certainly email is not an option!) and tell her what she’s missing… National Geographic photographs, novels, how-to videos, classical music concerts, research results, conversations with people across the globe. I have the zeal of any missionary: do as I do! See how much better your life could be! But she knows. She interacts daily with people who spend time online and who talk about it. She’s no doubt been presented with the option on more than one occasion. So, like any missionary, I come away baffled.
Perhaps the lesson here is for me. In a minor way, this situation reflects a great deal of my inner turmoil in dealing with the myriad people who choose not to live as I do (i.e., most of the world!). Who choose a different political allegiance, a different religion, have a different favorite color. I am surprised, all the time, every day, that people make choices I find incomprehensible and even destructive. I don’t know if my incomprehension reflects a state of self-satisfied complacency and a lack of openness — or if merely I’ve found a way to live that makes me happy and I wish everyone could feel that way too.
For now, I’ll continue my love affair with the Internet. But it’s helpful, once in a while, to have someone like the woman from Purchasing come along to make me ask the questions. And maybe if we all ask the questions about and of one another, we’ll come closer together during a time that is—ironically—all about distance.