Notes from the urban/rural divide: Technology isn’t simple

Technology is a persistent and everpresent part of modern culture: There’s an app for everything, if you want access to a range of basic public services you need technology, medical records are electronic, and not understanding or being able to use technology is a considerable social disadvantage. This has been a subject of much commentary, as well it should be, and there are a number of questions we should be asking about the role of technology, including questions about whether it’s reached a point of dangerous overreach.

But we should also be talking about technology in rural landscapes, because it’s radically different than in urban environments, and the challenges we face are quite different. In order to understand how to address technology divides and ways to provide opportunities to people across the US who need better access to technological tools, we need to talk about how the needs of urban and rural populations are fundamentally different. There is no one size fits all approach to fixing the tech divide, and it’s not just one of race, or class, or gender, but also one of locale.

Put bluntly, rural regions have far less technology than their urban counterparts, and the technology they do have is less advanced. This isn’t just about broadband, though high speed internet is a major contributing factor and redefining broadband will have a profound impact on rural communities. It’s also about the very tools rural communities have available to use for access, and the factors that limit those tools. Rural communities are more likely to have outdated equipment that lacks important components, and they’re also more likely to lack software and addons that enhance performance and create more potential applications for technology. For young rural people facing a world where being technologically literate is not only expected but functionally necessary, this is a huge problem.

One major contributor to the divide is school settings. Rural schools tend to be underfunded, for a variety of reasons, with poverty being a significant cause. When funding is based on property taxes and assessments are low, with a collection rate similarly low, it means that schools have less money to work with. They also have high overhead costs to maintain facilities and equipment, even with a relatively small number of students, and they don’t rank high on the list when it comes to grants and assistance.

For organizations and individuals looking to get technology into schools, urban schools seem like a more natural fit. A donation of computers, for example, would go a long way if hundreds or thousands of students could access it. By contrast, a school with only a few hundred students and sometimes even less doesn’t, at first glance, offer that kind of return on investment. Why help a rural school with the implementation of technology when it’s just not the most efficient or utilitarian use of funds?

At home, many rural kids and teens also have limited access to technology, so it’s not as though they can make up for lack of tools at school with things at home. This can also be a function of poverty, as families with limited funds can’t afford expensive computers, but it’s also one of limited broadband and utilities: Some rural households in the US still don’t have electricity, let alone broadband internet. In houses with computers and internet access, though, using the internet and developing tech skills can be unspeakably frustrating on a computer that only has a dialup connection. It’s very challenging to access information and materials people can use to apply to colleges, research job opportunities, and make informed decisions about their own lives.

This is an era when more and more rural people are fleeing for urban areas, because there’s nothing left for them where they live. There are limited job opportunities, between dwindling positions in agriculture and the death of small towns — and the jobs available are typically low-paying service jobs, which aren’t sustainable in the long term and don’t provide room for growth. Once rural youth hit city environments, though, they’re at a profound disadvantage, and it’s not because they’re tender yokels: It’s because they don’t have the privilege of years of ubiquitous exposure to technology. When they’re out interviewing for jobs and exploring life opportunities, they’re beaten out by urban counterparts.

The United States is failing to address this problem even as it tries to recognise that there is a huge digital divide in this country. It’s starting to understand that race and class play roles, and that rural communities have a serious problem in the form of lack of broadband access, but it can’t connect the dots to see how these things intersect. It also can’t conceive of the fact that tech isn’t just about broadband, but about the tools that go with it — high speed internet is useless without equipment to access it, whether that’s a smartphone or a laptop.

In many regions of the world, a fascinating technological leap occurred as people skipped landline phones, dialup internet, and desktop computers to go right to smartphones. While they may be viewed as a symbol of privilege in the West, for people in some parts of the Global South, they are the sole form of connection to a tech-based world, creating an opportunity to catch up on the global stage. This transition may provide a glimpse into a possible approach to the rural technology problem in the United States — perhaps the nation isn’t assembling priorities in an efficient way when it comes to improving technological literacy in the next generation.

Image: Nature & Technology, Theophilos Papadopoulos, Flickr