Notes from the Urban/Rural Divide: Technology

It is sometimes the little things that have the most impact on me when I’m traveling, that really underscore not just the differences between communities in the United States, but the differences between urban and rural spaces. I encountered case in point in Chicago in June, when I was walking down the street with some friends and the light changed, and an overhead voice came on and said ‘walk signal, [some street name].’ You could have bowled me over with a feather, but everyone else crossed the street quite merrily, as though nothing extraordinary had occurred.

In Fort Bragg, we only recently put in tones at our crosswalks to indicate which way the light is going, for the benefit of blind people and folks with low vision who might have difficulty seeing which way is safe to cross. The tones are only helpful if, one, you can distinguish between them, and two, you know what they mean, which is not necessarily a given. Furthermore, three, they have to actually activate; if the system doesn’t function right, it can be extremely dangerous. An audible alert telling you not only that it is safe, but clearly indicating which way is safe to cross, is a really good idea. And after I heard it in Chicago, I started noticing it in other cities as well.

The issue here is not that Fort Bragg is bent on making itself inaccessible and that the city planners are chortling to themselves at the thought of blind pedestrians misinterpreting the tones and waltzing out into oncoming traffic. It is that we are fundamentally technologically behind urban areas, for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is that we just don’t know know about the latest technology, not just in terms of city planning, but everything else. To install an audible alert like that, someone responsible for traffic control would need to know about that technology, which would require attending conferences where it’s announced, traveling in cities where they use it, and thinking ‘gee, this is a good idea.’

And even with the knowledge, we may not have the funds to make it happen. Retrofitting crosswalks is expensive; at the time we installed the tones, this technology might have been available, if fairly new, and either we didn’t know about it, decided not to use it, or couldn’t put it in because it was expensive. Now that the sidewalk is in place with everything hooked up, the expense for changing over might be prohibitive because we have less money available than they do in urban areas. It’s the kind of thing that I could see being rolled out as street lights need replacement and servicing, but we cannot pay to switch everything over, not with our limited funds.

There’s a reason that rural areas lag behind technologically, and it is not because we are necessarily unsophisticated, although lack of knowledge can play a role. It is also because we are financially limited. The same financial limitations that make it hard for us to get broadband access into rural areas play a role in the distribution of other technologies. We lack the funds to implement technology, to upgrade our infrastructure to support it, and we may lack the technicians with the skills needed to put it in and maintain it, even if we do have the money. If a community receives a grant for a computer lab, for example, it might not be able to connect to the Internet because there’s no broadband, and there may be no one with the capacity to manage it.

In a world where access to and familiarity with technology are increasingly important, where technological literacy is necessary for many people who want to go to college, pursue a career, this puts rural residents at a distinct disadvantage. I am not the only person who used longhand all the way through high school because I didn’t have regular access to a computer, in an era when computers in the schools were increasingly ubiquitous. This continues to this day, and the student who writes in longhand may be discouraged by college applications, by the increasingly online nature of changes for improvement and job opportunities.

Colleges announce they are ‘going green’ and they effectively cut off rural teens by doing so, because they go entirely online and students may not know how to find them, may not be able to fill out online applications, cannot request a paper application because they cannot find contact information. If a high school happens to have a vigorous guidance counselor who is willing and ready to help, who can request catalogs and paper applications and things like that, it can help, but not all students have access to that. Some students may be applying to college secretly because the people around them are so discouraging. Some students don’t know how to apply to college and are muddling along without assistance, and online-only information can be very isolating.

Without the ability to go to college, it can be difficult to succeed or to pursue careers, inside or outside your community. If a teen in a rural area wants to go to medical school to become a doctor and return to the community as a general practitioner, bringing something back to the community, that may not be possible. Services are sent into rural areas in the form of technicians and counselors and other ‘helpers,’ but people are rarely empowered to help themselves. Rural poverty and frustration can be exacerbated by the feeling of going nowhere and having few opportunities, and limited access to technology plays a significant role in that. Technology can open the doors of knowledge, but it can also keep them firmly shut.

Prioritizing technology funding for rural areas is critical. Yes, it is more expensive to bring technology to us, but it will pay off in the end by making communities strong and more independent. That, to my mind, is worth the initial investment, especially since many of us pay taxes but don’t see very many benefits from them as it is.