Life on the Other Side of the Digital Divide

How technology has and hasn't changed East Baltimore.

Feb 25 2014, 5:20pm

Image: Dave Manigault

The other I day sat on the steps of a corner store a few blocks up from where I was raised in east Baltimore. My uncle Junebug tilted a 40oz of OE to his dome as he leaned next to where I sat. This neighborhood used to be an open-air drug market full of staggering fiends and teenagers in Polo advertising dope brands and prices.

The fiends still lurk but it's hard to differentiate the hustlers from any of the other teens in the neighborhood because they sell off of their phones now, and everyone looks the same—young and emotionless with intense eyes locked on their cellys, fingering the home screen—not looking up for months.

Most of the kids I know in east Baltimore don't have internet access at home or computers. Their phones are the soul source of web access. This causes a bigger issue, prompting one to ask, how do their parents get online? Public libraries are an option for free internet access, but unlike liquor stores and churches, you can't find one on every corner.

"And if you do manage to make it to the library, they are not always open, especially with all of the budget cuts to public services, as we have here in Oakland," says Jen Schradie, a doctoral candidate in Sociology at UC Berkeley who focuses on the digital divide, "and there is often a wait to use public computers, as well as a time limit."

The digital divide is real. Getting a job without the internet is like running through the jungle naked and not getting bit by a mosquito. 

Speed cameras from outer space clocked me on my way to the Giants over on 33rd. A few miles over the limit guarantees an $80 ticket and you're guilty without court because computers don't lie—even the ones that aren't calibrated correctly.

Light trash and hacks with ancient flip-phones are always scattered across the front of this semi-gentrified market. Hacks are unlicensed cabbies in Baltimore looking to make $5 off of a ride and semi gentrified means a mix of baby-mothers, Hopkins students, cliché yuppies in boat shoes, city workers and me. I dapped the hacks I know and entered the market.

Inside, I patiently waited in the self-checkout line.

At Register A, an elderly woman in cuffed peach sweat pants stood staring at the home page of the checkout screen. The screen stared back. Her index finger was erect like ET's as she waved it like a wand at all of the multicolored options. She didn't have the skill set to choose. No one lined up behind her.

Register B hosted a curly headed minor, propped on her tippy toes. She bobbed and weaved through every menu as if she designed the program. She arrived after the elderly woman, purchased more items, and was meeting her mom at the door before the woman at Register A scanned her first coupon.

The digital divide is real. Getting a job without the internet is like running through the jungle naked and not getting bit by a mosquito. Obamacare is most easily accessed through the internet. And then there's clothing lines that only sell online, artist that only drop music online––music that you can't bump unless you have a apple device or an iTunes account in an era where many improvised Americans don't even have a bank account.

"The digital elite who have 24/7 access to multiple devices have no clue what it's like to go even a day without their gadgets," says Schradie, "and to those who think that having a mobile device or library access can substitute or 'leapfrog' over laptops or other computers, I challenge you to try and do all of your work on your phone or at the library."

Schradie has found that people who control their internet and computer access at both home and work—and everywhere in between—are much more likely to blog, post photos or create online content in general, than those with only occasional access. "Whose voices are we hearing and whose are left out?" Schradie asks.

The combination of all of these advancements has me split. I love that our country is a leader in innovation, but why can't we be leaders in assuring that all of our citizens can enjoy our accomplishments? It's cool that the little girl from the market was biologically programmed to understand self-checkout but what is that lady at Register A going to do? How would she ever be able to use something like an iPad? 

And even on a larger scale, how are we going to attack our nation's unemployment problem when so many Americans aren't able to apply for jobs because they lack technology and the basic skills needed to function when acquiring such? The other side isn't much prettier.

Too much exposure to technology is a problem as well. Think about the people who are tech savvy and possess 0 percent social skills. Those recess-rejecters who live in video games all day, or the teenage girl with 10,000 Instagram post in three days—all of her face who follows 10,000 other young people with identical timelines—a collage of blank stares. The haves are just as screwed as the have-nots making the digital divide one fucked up equation. Just like everything else in America, you either have too much to care about or not enough to survive.

Will we ever find balance?

D Watkins is a writer and adjunct professor from east Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter at @dwatkinsworld.