The Digital Divide Where We Live

I need a list of things that I should be reminded of regularly. Age, or perhaps resilient enthusiasms that fly in the face of reality, are the culprits behind my forgetting. Top of the list is that the digital divide isn't a Global South vs. Global North thing. It's a "my neighbourhood" thing.

As I was writing this column, my attention was drawn to comments made by some pretty active (online and in meatspace) trade unionists about Canada Post and probable service cuts. Asked to support the postal workers in their efforts to keep post offices open and preserve service levels, they had responded by rejecting the need for the continued existence of Canada Post (I'm putting it politely). Essentially, they were accusing the Posties and their supporters of being Luddites, of hanging onto something no longer needed or wanted, at least by them.

I was also reminded of a local campaign to save government services in a rural area of Atlantic Canada. A big part of the underlying rationale for the campaign was that seniors and low-income people wouldn't be able to access those services online, so, when the office disappeared, the service would, too. Trouble was, the campaign was conducted online. This likely meant that the campaigners' most enthusiastic constituency was excluded from participation, because the campaigners were doing the very thing they were campaigning against.

The digital divide (who has internet access, their comfort in using it if they do, and the quality of their connection) remains a consideration for anyone campaigning broadly and, in some campaigns, it is a key consideration.

South Central Ontario, where I live, demonstrates the point. When my partner and I moved to Cobourg (pop. 18,000) eight years ago, our street, which is right in town, didn't even have ADSL (high-speed access using a phone connection). Even today, large chunks of Northumberland County surrounding Cobourg have to rely either on expensive satellite connections or even more expensive cell phone tethering (connecting a computer to a mobile and using the phone's data connection to get to the internet).

Yes, this means that if you're planning on launching a campaign here in Northumberland, you need to sigh, sit back and figure out how, or if, to include a paper or telephone component to your campaign.

The "if" part is a problem. Drop the non-digital components (because they're relatively expensive and slow) of your campaign and you will have effectively excluded many of this county's low-income residents. Which also means many of the women, especially women who are single parents. And the elderly (even if comfortable with the tech). And more.

The digital divide was supposed to have disappeared by now, but, instead, it's becoming more acute. Those same areas where an internet connection does exist, and is getting more expensive, are also the parts of the country where face-to-face public and commercial services are getting more difficult to find: everyone from Service Canada to Bell is telling us we need to access their services online or find a way to travel an awfully long distance.

It's probably true that fewer people are without internet access. But it is also probably true that those without are most in need of it.

The shift to greater use of mobile services in some rural areas, or amongst people with lower incomes (a smartphone can replace a phone line and internet access at a lower cost), mirrors what has been seen in the Global South for a decade or more.

We should consider this in designing our campaigns: Do we really want to emulate corporations and government agencies and cut off whole chunks of the working class from what we do, just because we're enamoured of the new media?

Consider, too, the class implications of those changes to internet pricing (like "bandwidth throttling," the intentional slowing of service) each time they come up before the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission).

Think I`m off-base in thinking the divide even exists? See Michael Geist's "Why Canada's Digital Divide Persists," in The Tyee.

The number 2 item on my 'must remind self' list is that the internet is changing the way we behave as trade unionists. Or, rather, it isn't changing the way we behave, but it should be.

Over the past couple of months, Amazon employees in Germany have been on strike a few times. They have been holding one-day "warning" strikes that look, as I write this, as though they're going to win the workers some money and significant changes in the way their work is organized.

While reading about their strikes one day, I received an email from someone I consider a very solid trade unionist. He was encouraging me to buy his latest book--by ordering online, from Amazon. It gets worse. At about that time, LabourStarters in the UK were putting the final touches on the online labour news website's second book, The Global Labour Movement: An Introduction. Guess where it was being self-published. Yep, Amazon.

Then came yet another pitch for a great book from another activist trade unionist. Available through Amazon's self-publishing facility.

Now, the warning strikes were just that, and there was no crossing of any picket lines involved. No physical line anyway.

I've not seen or heard any serious discussions about what it means to our definition of solidarity when a strike by workers in one country can result in an employer instantly moving the work to another. We talk a great deal about the mobility of global capital, and probably all of you reading this would think of industries like textiles as being "mobile."

But, if a strike starts in Germany at midnight and the work normally performed by the strikers gets moved to Costa Rica the instant the strike starts, and no user of the services or products the workers provide knows where their orders are being routed--well,you get the idea. Are we crossing a picket line? In the good old days I could shop at one bookstore in a chain if it wasn't being struck, unless or until a boycott was called. But now, in some industries, is a boycott not automatic?

This is yet another example of how we're still way behind in the globalization game. Chances are that many, perhaps most, of you reading this didn't even know there was an Amazon strike in Germany. We don't even have the mechanisms needed to inform our activists of strikes outside Canada


There is no union content (yet) in the regular "Worst Apps Ever" feature from The Guardian, but if your union is looking at releasing some, it might pay to look over some of the things some fairly bright, well-funded people thought made sense.

Yelp.com is a social networking site for reviews of restaurants, services, and all kinds of stuff, including, perhaps bizarrely, prisons (in both the U.S. and Canada). How long do you think it will be before union reviews start showing up? How's your union's reputation-management strategy doing? Do you have hundreds of members and staff out there monitoring social networking platforms, Wikipedia etc? Yeah, I thought so. Sigh.

I spoke at a conference not long ago and said something, for the 100th time, about there not being one national union in Canada with an interactive website. I was taken to task by three staffers from three unions who assured me that anyone using the "contact us" facility on their websites would get an answer in 24 hours or less.

Good for them, but that's like saying, in the pre-digital days, that their union offices are always open, but they've decided never to have a meeting where members can talk to each other or at least hear what others are saying to the leadership and what the response is.

If unions don't provide a space for members to talk to each other as well as to their leadership, members will just create that space somewhere else, perhaps assisted in that decision by a future review on Yelp.com. With the sword of "right to work" hanging over our heads, do we really want to be this snugly behind the times? Behind the 8-ball?

The good folks at Yes Lab and the Centre for Artistic Activism have created Actipedia, an open-access, user-generated database of creative-activism case studies designed to inspire activists. "Actipedia is about sharing the ways people challenge power and envision a better society," says Andy Bichlbaum of Yes Lab. "To change the world we've got to learn from each other." Words to live by.

Derek Blackadder is the co-ordinator for LabourStart in Canada and an honourary member of the Toronto Workers' History Project’s Archive Committee. Feedback and ideas for future WebWork topics welcome. 


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