Sunday, December 11, 2005

Technoutopianism

Free voicemail helps homeless people get jobs:
Community Voicemail offers free voicemail boxes to homess and unemployed people who are seeking work, so they'll have a way for prospective employers to reach them. The program is very successful too: "workers distributed voicemail numbers to 145 people over 6 months, and a whopping 70% found jobs within 2 months!"
These sorts of stories are always encouraging, and I want to continue a thought I began a few days in noting that Internet access in low-income families has risen.

Technology is a powerful tool for improvement. Guaranteeing voicemail to every citizen would cost next to nothing, but clearly would have profound benefits. The same could be said for internet access.

One of the major factors which lead to the resurgence of Harlem in the '90s (though cause and effect are difficult to separate here) was the arrival of grocery stores. Fresh produce was and still is hard to obtain there, which almost certainly contributes to the high rates of diabetes and heart disease in African-Americans. If you have to travel for an hour and a half on a bus to buy fresh fruit, but the corner bodega has plenty of junk food, what will you eat?

There are any number of historical, economic and sociological reasons why grocery stores didn't and still don't exist in Harlem they way they do elsewhere, and I don't care about that. Everyone is clearly better off now that Fairway provides a local source of fresh produce (as well as jobs and other social goods), and everyone would be better off if more grocery stores existed in the area.

Similar arguments can be applied to almost any good or service, and almost any low income community.

One great advantage of the internet is that it eliminates those sorts of geographic barriers. Guaranteeing broadband access to everyone (and a way to get computers into people's homes) would be a great way to even out social inequality. It's not just access to shopping. The internet is great educational tool, and it's great for bringing people together around causes. I can imagine lots of ways that could benefit people across social levels.

I'm sure my conservative readers will scoff at this, but there's no reason that what we're talking about here has to be a government program, though the TVA is what comes immediately to mind. Wireless internet covering cities is getting more and more popular, and there's a lot to be said for that approach.

Wireless access is slowish, and degrades as more people join a network. The cost of covering an urban area is relatively low, the benefits are high, and there'd still be a market for higher speed options. Everyone wins.

Is this utopian, or is it sound policy?