There are few things in America more anti-technology than the public library system. Don’t get me wrong – libraries are constantly evolving and even embrace new technologies. Most offer internet access for any cardholder, which is vital for people looking for work who can’t afford internet in their own home. They offer computer workstations to provide a quiet haven for work, study, or just plain getting away. And while many people don’t know this, many libraries also rent out ebooks. They aren’t shying away from change.
So what I mean by “anti-technology” is that libraries represent a glorious antidote to modern communications. They are stolid and mostly permanent. Their main collections are row after row of books, aging and dusty and thumbed through and loved, full of weird treasures and serendipitous finds. They stand in stark contrast to the ephemeral nature of much modern communication, flitting incredibly through the ether. But libraries have to continue to adapt, and it is the very thing that threatens them – mobile tech – that can save them, and help pave the way for more private contributions to the public good.
The San Francisco Techmobile
We’ll start with the San Francisco techmobile, which is set to debut in the Bay Area this weekend. The $66,000 overhaul of one of the city’s four bookmobiles will be a traveling WiFi hotspot, but it offers so much more than that. A 29-ft giant, the bus will have seven workstations outfitted with MacBook Pros, as well as an instruction station for teaching. It will make initial stops at Visitacion Valley, Excelsior, and the Mission, but it is expected that the amount of stops will expand.
This is part of San Francisco’s ambitious, five-year project to increase tech literacy. The WiFi access, while nice if you happen to be in that area and can’t get a signal, isn’t for the tech pro who is racing ahead of the curve on each latest development. It’s for the surprisingly large amount of people in this country who don’t have access to technology and for whom the internet is something they see referenced and maybe can use occasionally, but which remains far from an everyday – much less every moment – part of their lives.
For those of us who have constant access to mobile tech and are essentially always online, that may sound like a pretty sweet deal. “What?” we’d snark languidly, “Are they unable to see the latest think piece on Lena Dunham? Good for them.” It’s easy to take it for granted, but that allows us to forget how much we rely on these technologies. The Techmobile sets out to change this. It will help people in this group in several ways:
- It will teach people to be comfortable both with the internet and technology in general. How many jobs use zero technology? How many decent ones that help people pull ahead?
- It will prevent a new generation from falling far behind their peers. Education inequality was bad enough in an analog world as schools struggled with outdated books and maps. But education inequality is even worse now. The technology needed to compete changes so quickly that many students never get a chance to get comfortable with it. They are disqualified before the race has even begun.
- It will help people find jobs. When I was unemployed, my dad used to tell me to go knock on doors until I explained that isn’t how it’s done anymore. Think of how hard it is to find a job if you can’t get online. Most places want a resume submitted through their site. If you don’t have access, a huge sector of work becomes automatically unavailable to you.
Where today’s tech titans can come to the rescue
Let’s get back to the old libraries. These monuments to permanence weren’t all funded by the public. Thousands across the country were built by private donations, most notably by the old industrialist robber baron, Andrew Carnegie. Cynics say he wanted to do some good before he died to cleanse his soul. Others say he was genuinely concerned about education in his adopted country and that he wanted to give as many people the chance to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, like he did. However, the libraries got built regardless.
There’s a lesson here. Carnegie came to this country penniless and illiterate, and while we no longer wholeheartedly believe in the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches claptrap, we know that providing opportunity is the only way for people to move upward. That’s where today’s Carnegies, the tech giants who are just as rich but imbued with far more social consciousness, can come in.
Computer literacy and internet instruction are the basic literacy of today. It is nearly impossible to get ahead if you don’t possess these skills. The tech giants of Silicon Valley should throw their weight behind the San Francisco Techmobile and other tech education projects (and some have already taken steps). It’s not just good work, it is also smart business. They want people to keep buying their products, but there is a real fear that it will be to an increasingly smaller slice of people who have the know-how and the income to enjoy them. It’s a booming business now, but nothing is permanent. The Pony Express taught us that. Larger percentages of the population falling behind is bad for business and a true disaster for democracy.
Bill Gates led the way for philanthropy from tech billionaires. There is still much to be done, but engaging in tech literacy and basic skills is the best way to help create a decent – and profitable – society. My one request, however, is to keep funding the regular libraries, too. Some of us would be lost without them.