Universal Internet Access
By Kevin Frasier
The internet was supposed to connect us. Instead, it has separated us into ever-smaller tribes. This lesson was clear while driving from San Francisco to Montana recently.
In between our home in the Richmond District and Red Lodge, Montana, my partner and I drove by a lot of America (approximately, 1,101 miles worth of it). We realized that the internet has failed to make it any more likely for a kid born in Pacific Heights to empathize with another youngster growing up in, for example, Ashton, Idaho. In fact, the internet has likely made it even harder for urban and rural individuals of all ages to see eye to eye.
Correcting this empathy deficit won’t be solved with new apps — instead, we simply need to (1) make sure that everyone can affordably access high-speed internet and (2) use that Internet to meaningfully engage with people from varied backgrounds and with different perspectives.
On one level, the internet divides America into the digital “haves” and “have nots.” For the “haves,” those with broadband access at home, the internet is the setting of an entirely different world — one with more jobs, more classes, and more people with whom to connect. For the “have nots,” their lack of connectivity denies them access to this world.
To put numbers on the extent of this separation, consider that approximately 26 percent of Californians are among those still seeking to join the ranks of the “haves.” On the national level, the “have nots” are particularly likely to be rural — 37 percent of rural Americans do not have the Internet access they need to thrive. Comparatively, 100 percent of San Francisco families with incomes greater than $200,000 a year have broadband at home. If we want the internet to be capable of doing more uniting than dividing, then we need to make sure that everyone can access its benefits.
On another level, the internet allows for division among the digital “haves.” By virtue of hosting an ever-growing repository of content, the internet lets us sink into silos of secluded communities. Whether Facebook or Parler (the latest social media site designed to seclude individuals with particular views from the rest of society) is your site of choice, social media websites as well as the bevy of news sites have made it easier for those with internet access to find their bubble and perpetually stay within it. As a result, the aspirational hope for the internet as a source of connectivity and, consequently, empathy, has been frustrated.
So beyond ensuring that everyone has access to the internet, we need to reassess how everyone should use the internet. To make the internet a source of connection rather than separation, it ought to have randomness built into its DNA. In other words, whether you prefer Facebook or Parler, MSNBC or Fox, our online activities should facilitate a degree of unpredictability so that you’re introduced to different individuals and viewpoints. This requires us all to demand more from content creators and news networks. It requires subjecting ourselves to the hard work of “searching” a mile in another’s shoes. It requires us acknowledging that the internet has yet to reach its potential as a unifying force.
I’m not the first person to call for randomness being built into our online experiences. Cass Sunstein of Harvard did so years ago. But I would encourage others to join with me. The more of us demanding that the tech giants calling our City home do more to help us realize the internet’s potential, the greater the likelihood that they will listen. The internet is capable of assisting a kid from Ashton, Idaho empathize with a pal in Pac Heights. That capacity is contingent on making access universal and internet use more random.
Kevin Frazier is a law school student at UC Berkeley and a Richmond District resident.