21 August 2005

the world is not flat

I hate to break it to you, but, despite recent rumors to the contrary, the world is not flat.

The world is not flat at all: it is filled with dizzying heights that fall off into the deep, with shifting sands and fiery eruptions, with water and wind constantly carving the land into new shapes, and with vast expanses which a great many people perceive to be full of nothing. The world is bumpy, messy, variegated to the extreme, and it is bumpy not only in its physical terrain but also in the lives of its inhabitants, in all the sorts and conditions of humans who live on it.

Recently Celvio Derbi Casal, a library student from Brazil who has a blog, wrote to tell me a little about the public libraries there:
We have a very sad field here!! In my city (Porto Alegre, you may know because the World Social Forum was made here 3 times) and its a big city, the capital of the state, the Municipal Public Library has no computers, even for the staff, and the catolog is a card catalog (the old 7.5 x 12.5 cards!). There's no money for acquisitions, and there's only one librarian in charge. You can project this picture to the small towns, where there are no libraries sometimes.

So when I read the US blogs about virtual reference or online resources for public libraries, I live a wonderfull but distant dream, and wonder about when our libraries will pass to this condition.
We have wonderfull libraries here too, and very good eletronic information resources, but they are developed and shared only in the college, academic and specialized libraries. Be a public or school librarian here sometimes is an adventure like be an archaeologist, crossing tons of old stuff, searching for something with value.
Contrast that with some of the statistics on computers and the internet in US libraries, as reported at BlogJunction (see the full study from Florida State University)
Sounds good--but that's still not the full story:
I don't think of the digital divide as a tired old cliche, but I also don't think of it as a single thing. There is not one digital divide, there are many--as many divides as there are lines on a contour map of our bumpy, crazy world. People come into the library where I work every day to use our computers because they do not have computers (or internet connections) of their own at home. For these people, the divide is not ability but access. But othepeoplele come in each day who do not know how to use computers at all, who, if we were to plop them down in front of one of our machines, would not even know where to begin. And many people, of course, never come in to the library at all. Some of them, like many of the undergraduates I used to teach at the University of Iowa, have all the access to technology they could want but are remarkably lacking when it comes to interpreting and evaluating the information they find. Others are among the 21-23% of American adults who cannot read well enough to fill out a job application or read a picture book to their kids.

All of those people need things, often very different things. Some need computers; some need to learn how to use computers; some need help learning to interpret the things they find; most need some combination of all these things. If you stay in your own contour of the map and spend your time talking to other people who live at that same level, it may well appear to you that the world is flat, but it's just not true.

When I was in junior high, I was taught that the United States was the world's largest oil producer but also the world's biggest oil importer and that the Soviet Union was the world's biggest wheat producer but also the world's biggest wheat importer. The world situation has changed since then, but the insane way in which its resources are distributed has not. The people with the greatest access to technology are also those who constantly seek more of it and who benefit most from many of the decisions that get made about technology. (A municipal wireless system is kind of neat, but it doesn't do you a damned bit of good if you don't have a wireless device, and I haven't noticed Philadelphia running around handing out laptops to the poor). Libraries are one of the few places in the world where you can hope to have some flattening effect, but you can only do that if you are fully aware of thheightshs and the depths that surround you, and of all the gradations in between.

Comments:
Well said. While for some people, there is an amazing interconnectedness via electronic media, those who most benefit from it already have access to the sorts of resources that many others do not. Even as a simple metaphor, "the world is flat" makes no sense, except in the ironic way that you point out: Friedman flattens out the economic realities of many of the world's people in order to project his own reality onto the world.
 
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