Topics on Fire Podcast Episode One Recap: Poverty Gap and Social Media

We had a fantastic Topics on Fire podcast last night on TalkShoe discussing the poverty gap and the internet and how social media could help bridge it. Because the audio recording had feedback issues, I’m doing a recap here in case we can’t get that fixed. The conversation lasted an hour and will go into part two this coming Sunday, August the 3rd (and yes, I have enlisted the help of a tech for a backup recording of the next session).

The call was driven both by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable panel and a lively chat room (the panel is listed in this post). The issue of economic inequality and how it affects access to necessary tools like internet access is a hot button issue for the country, and it was exciting to try and define the issue and discover solutions together on the call.
The first subject we tackled was how to define the problem. We determined that the problem was best defined in multiple parts: access to the internet and tools like computers, choosing how to use the access one it was attained, how other people tell the disenfranchised how to use the tools once they are obtained, and cultural and economic differences in using the tools once they are obtained.

Even with programs such as One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) and grants for computers in schools addressing the issue of hardware access in many areas (but not all), there remains the problem of access to the internet itself, and getting the hardware to the schools and people who don’t fall into the OLPC or grant programs. Andrew Feinberg discussed some of the government programs that are in place to subsidize regular phone use as a life necessity, such as the Universal Service Fee, and the need for broadband access to be qualified as a life necessity so that it can tap into some of the government money available.

Sean Aune, Andrew Feinberg, Jim Keenan, Shireen Mitchell, Cyndy Aleo-Carreira and Steve Hodson then got into a lively debate about the type of internet access available to rural and urban areas, about the attempt being made to do away with subsidies like the Universal Service Fee altogether, and about the possibilities for low cost access afforded by the new spectrum being opened up soon after the FCC auction from this past winter.

The biggest issue brought up in this part of the podcast was how we as a society continually turn to the government to bring subsidized access to the poor and disenfranchised, or to the school districts to handle it, when we as a social media community have the power to generate a grass roots effort to get a computer in every home, a computer lab in every school, and to lobby the telecommunications companies directly to bring more options for fast access to urban and far flung rural areas. As the biggest consumers of the technology our society needs to stay competitive, we should be doing more as a social media community to ensure our children and fellow citizens are not left behind in the new global economy.

As we moved on to the issue of how the tools were used, it was interesting to hear how many people still don't understand or trust technology. According to Shireen Mitchell, many of the women she helps in her work may eventually gain access to a computer and the web and still not allow it to be turned on in the home because they don’t know how to protect their children online. This led to a discussion of the knowledge gap and how it pertains to socio-economics – where do you turn for training and IT support when you can’t afford it?

My answer to this question was the same as my answer to the previous problem – leverage the power of the social media community. Lawyers, doctors, nurses and other professions consider doing pro-bono work a normal part of doing business. Why don’t we? We are a community of powerful social media thought leaders. Most of us are well versed in technology and how to build it and use it, or we know someone in our network who is. We need to institute a grass roots campaign to share our knowledge with people. Even if all you can do is give an hour a week at a shelter, or hook up a friend with knowledge with a low-income family in need of it – that connection is the first step to bridging the gap.

This idea generated a warm response form most of the panel, and we tabled the question of implementation until the next podcast call due to time constraints. it also led to another discussion, opened by Jim Keenan, of bridging the cultural gap. The question there is how to make choosing technology as important as choosing cultural status symbols. If someone can choose between, say, a new set of rims or a computer, and their culture or age wants the flash of the rims and the temporary status and satisfaction that brings – how do we get them to make technology as important? Half the battle is our reaching out, the other half is generating response.

The discussion of cultural acceptance of technology, both computers and mobile phones, was one that found no solution and was tabled until the next podcast. Several ideas were thrown out, but the roadblocks faced by restrictions on use placed in school and homes kept coming up. These restrictions directly collide with the fact that many government agencies that are designed to help the very people who need access to technology are moving to required access to the technology to obtain necessary services, such as benefits. the next podcast will touch on this issue further, as well as exploring more how social media and the social media community might be tapped to bridge the income gap in unexpected ways. Do join us for it – Sunday August 3rd on TalkShoe – same bat time, same bat channel.

I will be working on the audio file of the last recording for you and hope to put it up here once it is taken care of. If you'd like to help us with a backup recording (you can never have to many, I decided) of next Sunday’s podcast, please email me or find me on Twitter. I’m never one to turn down help or to be too afraid to say “I don’t know”, after all.