Digital access…and narcissism

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Lack of Internet access prevents low-income citizens from full connection to jobs, education and other life necessities. Today, representatives of a major communications corporation and a national civil rights organization write about what they are doing to facilitate broadband adoption in these disconnected homes. On the flip side, a digital worker writes about an unfortunate byproduct of too much technology — the focus on oneself.

Please note: There are three columns today.

Commenting is open.

Digital divide hurts education and jobs

By David L. Cohen

Statistics about broadband adoption and the “digital divide” paint a distressing picture in metro Atlanta and throughout the nation. According to government figures, nearly 30 percent of Americans lack Internet access at home — even though service has been built out to three-quarters of those people’s homes.

In Atlanta, where Comcast offers broadband service to 99 percent of our footprint, high-income neighborhoods like Buckhead have 80 to 100 percent of homes subscribing to broadband. But in lower-income areas such as South Atlanta, the adoption rate is 20 to 40 percent, or even lower.

The research clearly shows why: A lack of digital literacy — not understanding the value of the Internet, or fear of the Internet — is the major barrier, while roughly 20 percent point to the cost of computers and Internet access as their primary deterrent.

Given the critical importance of the Internet and all the opportunity it has to offer, this gap between “haves” and “have nots” should be unacceptable. The Internet’s wealth of resources is vital to education and workforce development. Students, employees and job seekers need access to stay competitive and to perform everyday tasks, like doing homework and research, using social media and paying bills.

Nearly 80 percent of students are asked to access homework assignments online, and 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies accept only online applications. In the educational context, new digital learning tools promise to enrich learning in the classroom, which is why the President’s ConnectED initiative to connect 99 percent of the schools in America to high-speed Internet service in five years is so critical. But school-based Internet service isn’t enough; advanced digital learning also requires Internet access at home.

At Comcast, we are forging community partnerships to bridge the digital divide through a program we just relaunched in Atlanta called Internet Essentials. It is offered to families with at least one child eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program. Internet Essentials is also available to parochial, private, cyberschool and home-schooled students. Last week, we announced that Internet Essentials has connected more than 1 million low-income Americans, or 250,000 families, to broadband service at home, most for the first time. More than 14,000 of these families are in metro Atlanta area, one of the program’s strongest performing cities.

Internet Essentials addresses myriad barriers such as cost, digital literacy and the perceived lack of relevance of online content. The program offers free digital literacy training in print, online and in-person, as well as low-cost broadband service (at $9.95 a month) and the option to purchase an Internet-ready computer for $150. Alongside our local partners, we have trained more than 20,000 low-income Americans in basic Internet skills since the inception of the Internet Essentials program.

That’s a good start, but clearly there is more work to be done to bridge the digital divide in metro Atlanta and across the country.

David L. Cohen is executive vice president of the Comcast Corp.

Broadband access is no longer optional

By Hilary O. Shelton

This summer’s march on Washington reminds us that the mission of the civil rights movement is constantly evolving. And in this gilded information age, getting everyone connected to broadband Internet has now become part of the movement’s bulwark. The president’s plan to wire 99 percent of U.S. schools is a much-needed part of the solution; but until we get everyone connected at home, the digital divide will remain.

Subscribing to broadband is no longer optional: 80 percent of U.S. jobs will require digital fluency within the next 10 years, 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies accept only electronic job applications, and nearly every aspect of college life has moved online. But today, African-American and Hispanic families lag 10 to 20 percentage points behind whites in broadband adoption.

Closing the “at-home” divide is complicated. Most non-adopters say they just don’t see broadband as valuable. Others lack the digital literacy necessary to navigate the Internet’s vast possibilities. The cost of computers and broadband service can also be an issue, but it’s not the most important one.

Two years ago, the FCC teamed with Comcast, the nation’s largest broadband provider, to initiate the biggest experiment ever attempted to close the digital divide. The undertaking, known as Internet Essentials, offers heavily discounted broadband service at $9.95 a month and a computer for just $150 to families with a child eligible for the federal school lunch program. There are approximately 134,000 such families in the Atlanta area.

Internet Essentials also offers to teach participants state-of-the-art digital skills..

The program is unique because it not only addresses the major barrier to adoption — demonstrating relevance of broadband and teaching the skills to use it — but because of the cost-saving incentives it offers. The program virtually eliminates the most oft-cited barriers to non-adoption without using scarce public funds.

That combination has made this one of the most successful digital divide initiatives ever tried. One million Americans have joined, 86 percent use the Internet daily, and more than half use it for work and two-thirds, to access government information and services.

But no good deed goes unpunished. A few outlier critics have claimed the program hasn’t gone far enough. Others don’t like the idea of public-private partnerships, no matter how much good they deliver.

We need every idea on the table to solve this problem. That means scaling up what works. But it’s going to take a village. The digital divide took years of neglect to open so wide; it will take years of hard work to close.

Hilary O. Shelton is NAACP Washington bureau director and senior vice president for advocacy.

Obsessed with ourselves

By Ashley Twist

Numerous studies over the years have shown that the alienating nature of the Internet — Facebook and social media in particular — is making us lonely and depressed. Our sense of happiness and social connectedness is directly related to how often we use the Internet.

Yet despite how terrible we feel about ourselves after scrolling through everyone’s weekend pictures, we still post updates, pictures and videos of ourselves. We see what others are doing — sharing, posting, tweeting — and we feel compelled to put our best life forward, too. Our social media culture has become less about sharing content to create connected experiences and more about vanity. We’re becoming digital narcissists, obsessed with ourselves and what others think of us.

Count the number of “selfies” (a picture someone takes of themselves with a cell phone camera) on your newsfeed right now, and you’re likely to agree that social media has become the primary outlet for narcissistic behavior. We’re all playing a bizarre game to see who can get the most attention on the Internet.

During a recent conversation with friends, we went around the circle comparing whose Instagram pictures received the most “likes.” It became a contest for attention, and the rest of the night, we posted pictures with the key objective to rack up likes and comments.

Perhaps this egocentricity all started with the trend of the quantified self, the movement to incorporate technology into data acquisition on aspects of a person’s daily life in terms of measurement and performance. Thanks to apps that count calories and products like Nike Fuelband, a person has the ability to track seemingly everything in one’s life, which can make it easy to become self-centered. More self-knowledge becomes more self-absorption, which then becomes more self-serving social behavior.

There has been a clear behavioral shift from sharing experiences to sharing egocentric content, but how does this affect the future of social media and how we relate to each other?

As I see more acquaintances in my network share attention-seeking posts of no real value, I can’t help but wonder if this behavior is the initial step in the downfall of communication. There’s no filter on what people put out there for anyone and everyone to see; what happened to privacy, humility and dignity?

My respective social feeds have become filled with countless posts of bragging, irrelevant statements (“I just sneezed!”) and over-filtered pictures of the latest event attended. I can only hope that we’re still in the (long) honeymoon stage with social media, and that as it continues to become more ingrained in our society, we will share only content of real value, in an effort to connect with people.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I can handle one more selfie.

Ashley Twist is the mobile innovation strategist at Engauge, an Atlanta digital marketing agency.

3 comments Add your comment

do what?

November 8th, 2013
1:05 pm

This is in response to one of today’s AJC letters to the editor: Re the letter about our Falcons, somebody must have dropped the writer on her head. She says “There has been no major player change or coaching change…..” which is totally wrong. Our team that was 10 yards from the Super Bowl got totally dismantled during the off-season. This season’s team is definitely not the same team we had last year. Dimitroff reshuffled the deck by letting a number of our key players go and bringing in a bunch of unknown quantities. According to our AJC sports pages, something like 40% or more of last season’s great team are no longer with us. Plus the main offensive coach went to a different team during the off-season.

So we are playing with 60% or less of the team we had last season and a brand new offensive coach. We started September with a dismantled and restructured team, almost as if last year had been a losing year. This restructured team, by virtue of last year’s record, was given the toughest schedule in the whole NFL this year, and during the first month of this season we lost many of our remaining key players to injury (so now even those spots are filled by newcomers). Between the offensive coach leaving and key offensive players being let go, our quarterback is getting little or no protection this year – a recipe for disaster that makes me hold my breath every week that Matt won’t get injured badly too.

In order to “bring back our winning team”, somebody would have to go all around the NFL reclaiming all those players let go in the off-season, along with the coach(s) we let go to other teams, put back together our dismantled team. Impossible. Somebody in the Falcons’ front office is nuts, and we fans have to now suffer through how ever many years it takes to rebuild.


November 8th, 2013
6:07 am

I am much more concerned with the lack of actual literacy, i.e., the ability to read above the eighth grade level, than I am with digital literacy. Furthermore, I am happy to say that I never taken a photo of myself.


November 8th, 2013
1:10 am

When you consider that only about 50% of the students in Atlanta Public Schools graduate and that many of those same neighborhoods have limited broadband access it’s easy to say there’s a digital divide. However, is it lack of broadband or something else?

Sometimes it’s easy to see causation that doesn’t really exist, and you have to wonder if students are not motivated to do their school work how broadband access is going to help. Wouldn’t the technology be as likely to serve as a distraction? While I applaud Comcast for offering assistance I fear the answer to lagging academic performance is more complicated than access to the internet.