Building a wall free Digital Tomorrow

Posted By Pamela on Jan 22, 2008 | 10 comments

digitalcastle.jpgI live a strange life. There is no way around it. My husband works for an office in San Jose, I have contracts to do work with a university in Sonoma, I teach for universities in Arizona, Australia, and Illinois, and I also do a bit of contract work for an association in D.C. (and somehow I don’t exceed 40 hours a week on paper…).

Meanwhile, we live in Illinois.

This wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for this fabulous thing called the Internet. Across its high-wires and by-wires we shoot our lives across the world, meeting for lunch across the desk from one another, with a video camera bringing our friends’ multi-continental faces face-to-face.

This is an alternate reality that doesn’t belong to all of us. As I find myself symbiotically connected to the Matrix via a cellular broadband card from random corners of this country, I know there are others who still linger in the land of landlines and dialup.

And there are those without computers.

This is hard for me to grok. I’ve had a computer of my own since 4th grade and a computer in my home as long as I can remember. I learned to count so I could find Pong on the cassette player that served up data to our now ancient Apple computer.

Our computer literacy opens up a world to my household that will make us part of a separate society. We will be part of a New Media tomorrow, where our video content comes from YouTube, Google Video, and other streaming content. We will interact with others via Skype, and forego the telephone as a thing only called by telemarketers. We will setup iGoogle pages, write blogs, share our drives across our house, and answer every “I wonder.. who/where/how/when” with an instantaneous IMDB / wikipedia / Google search. Our news will come from Fark and SlashDot as we read Digg and our collected RSS feeds more than we read the Times or Post.

We will? No, actually, we have. We live in that tomorrow.

These amazing resources allow me to walk into work and talk to my colleagues about the latest outrage with world-weary knowledge gleaned from too much outraged Googling. These amazing resources allow me to learn at home every day, constantly experiencing life-long learning as I freely explore tutorials, learning videos, and even online classrooms in Second Life as I work to understand things beyond my astronomy degree (plumbing anyone? No, how about German?).

But I am a freak of a high-speed, 10mbps down / 1mbps up, world.

“Did you see on Stumble Upon…?” I asked a colleague of a different generation. Blank stare.

“Did you see on Google Earth…?” I asked a student. Blank Stare.

“I’ll show you how to use that software later. Let’s screen share in BRIO,” I said to a real-world friend. Blank Stare.

Just as there is a small segment of the society that falls in the “richer than God” category, there is a small segment of society that falls in the “more wired than Bill Gates” category (I don’t think anyone is more wired than Steve Jobs 😉 ). I’m not in either of these categories, but our household is definitely closing in on one of these boundaries faster than we’re closing in on the other.

There is irony embedded in the mark-up language of the digital divide. Online content is largely free and ranges across almost all topics. Because I can afford broadband, I can access the world’s libraries, avoid international telephone charges, pay bills without buying stamps, and generally self-select to be a shut-in if I decide the real world is just way too scary. I can even order groceries, pizza, a freshwater fish freighted to my front step.

I suspect I save more money using the Internet than I spend on our cable bill.

Let me state this again for emphasis more clearly: Because I can afford the up front expenditure – installation, hookup, routers, computers, deposit (because my husband is Canadian and the cable company hates Canadians) – we can save money on life, learn effectively, live virtually, and collaborate LAN to LAN as all boundaries are erased between my computer and yours.

As a Web 2.0 content provider, I have to wonder if podcasting is the digital generations form of polo. We often gather around and root for our favorite player blogger, and occasionally try our hand riding the ponies RSS. When we talk about our popularity (Hey, Phil and I are both in the “Open Labs: Best Science Blogs of 2007”), do the mainstream masses know what this means? Are we leading a tsunami of content over the LAN, or are we just a small crest created by a 2 horsepower engine MHz processor on a really small pond.

I understand why people still do TV. Do you know anyone who wants a TV and doesn’t have one?

I understand why people still do radio. Do you know anyone without a radio?

Just as there are gestures designed at redistributing wealth in the US, there are also gestures designed at redistributing Internet. Libraries give free access. Schools give free access. There are free hotspots for the laptop lugging among us. Even McDonald’s is in on the digital distribution of content.

But are there gestures in other countries? Can a kid is Katmandu kill time in an Internet Café for free, for fun, for more than a few minutes at a time?

One of the corner stone projects of the International Year of Astronomy is the creation of a Media Portal that will allow the astronomy aficionados of the world to log in and lounge around in the stars. There will be links to live satellite feeds, twitter feeds, press feeds, pictures a plenty, and widgets to wend around the sky within. I am part of the team that will be creating this portal, and as I sit here, working to learn how to program my first desktop widget (woot!), I wonder what segment of the world our worldwide portal will reach? Do I need to have different interfaces for high speed, and low speed surfers. Is Flash fair on an international playing field?

Are there things I haven’t anticipated – invisible digital walls that keep the surfers from breeching the content castle?

Yes. Yes there are.

I know there are many of you out there reading this who are in other nations. Where are you reading? Can you reach all online content? What are your limitations? What do we, the content providers need to provide you with to make our world part of your world.

I want to know. What digital walls need shattered?


  1. …Wow… What a great post, of all of your posts, I have to say that this one struck me the most. I don’t know why precisely, but every point you make is completely true and the quesitons you pose are ones to consider. I just wanted to say keep up the good work!

  2. Content wise it really depends on your audiance (sp?).

    If a lot of your resources will be video and pictures…
    Is a low-bandwith version needed? Probably not since if you are on low-bandwith ti will take minutes to download the pictures and video’s anyday.

    If the majority will be text, then a low-bandwith version would be a nice addition for the few less fortunate.

    Flash => big nono if you can avoid it.
    Yes flash is nice and you can do wonderful things with it with ralative ease.

    Yet lots of small devices (my ex PDA, phone…) all have limited support for javascript but no flash 🙁

    If you design the page with these in mind (every thing is based on em’s not px for example) things will scale resonably well.

    But flash content won’t even play.

    So try to use as much of the basics as you can xhtml-transitional + css and some javascript can get you a whole way! (especial combined with frameworks)

  3. I teach for an online university that has an amazing online library with access to all sorts of content. However, 85% of our students are military, and some of them are taking courses while deployed around the world. While broadband access is increasing, many of them have slow connections and/or limited time on shared computers.

    Then there are the millions of people worldwide with no access at all (OLPC may help, but not completely). There are infrastructure problems that must be solved first. The developing world cannot solve these problems on their own.

  4. Greetings I am in Africa reading this om my phone. I can get internet through safaricom they also have mpesa which you can send money to someone with your phone. Keep up the great work.

  5. From where I was living, most people from developed countries would be very surprised at the expense of getting Internet, let alone high speed ones which are even comparable to a 1/10th of what’s normally seen in Western countries. It’ll certainly take some time before some “revolution” could happen and bring everyone in the world in pace (or so I think).

  6. What’s a radio?

  7. Being bedridden from Multiple Sclerosis, I depend on the internet to occupy my mind. The router downstairs failed, but oddly, there are about a dozen local signals my notebook can hear, some of which are not secure. The next time I go downstairs, a major operation, I will install the new router. In the meantime, I listen to your weekly astronomy podcasts, marvel at the beauty of the skies, and write hundreds of short essays about astronomy and physics. There is no divide for me.

  8. Hi. I’m from Russia. Internet here NOW costs really about #20-30 per month (in the Moscow/S-Pb). Almost anyone can afford it. But as long as i can see – only few use it for educational purps/ for job. I am programmer… But i hate internet, because it is twice as evil as TV. It gives us opportunity to communicate, but people are sitting at their homes 🙁
    p.s. Your blog and podcast are great!

  9. i loved your web site and youshould keep giving the information that you gave me
    thank you,

    om……… om…………. om…………………….

  10. The BBC World Service’s Digital Planet often covers the issue of the digital divide and internet access around the world. For instance in the developing world people may be more likely to access the internet in the future via mobile phone (cell phone) as it is cheaper to bypass installation of expensive land-line systems.

    Consideration is required for both low bandwidths *and* vastly different screen sizes. Simple interfaces are generally better.

    By the way, I think the One-Laptop-Per-Child initiative may be pre-installing some multimedia content on the sub-$100 laptops so some bandwidth issues could be addressed if agreements were made with them.

    Various flavours of Linux are being distributed in the developing world presumably on CDs in the post. That is another way to get around bandwidth issues.

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