I was hanging out with a couple friends yesterday, when somebody started talking about some guy who was displaying his masculinity by tearing a phone book in half with his bare hands. The idea that any person would feel compelled to show their strengths in this way is comical to me, but my friend posed a question in jest that I later thought about. He asked, “Why would anybody need a phone book in the first place?” I replied, “I guess for when your Internet goes out.”
I remember looking through phone books as a child, trying to understand how everything was organized and why some businesses had pictures or bigger fonts than others (it was before I understood how advertising works). I also remember being constantly reminded to look for something in various reference material. When I didn’t know how to spell a word, Dad would tell me to look it up in the dictionary. If I asked about the history of an event or person, he would tell me to look it up in the encyclopedia. If I had a question about where a state or country was, he sent me to the almanac. We didn’t have a computer in the house when I was growing up. Yet, I was one of the lucky ones.
My parents were told they would never be able to conceive. So a few years later, when they found out my mother was pregnant with me, they did everything they could to ensure I would arrive with as good a chance as anybody at success. Before I was born they purchased a full reference library complete with an unabridged encyclopedia, unabridged dictionary, yearbooks for the decade leading up to my birth, medical and science encyclopedias, almanacs, and literary classics ranging from The Complete Works of William Shakespeare to The Last Days of Pompeii. I remember reading the Divine Comedies around the age of ten trying to figure out why they weren’t funny.
This is a perfect example of making the path easier. By bringing the reference materials into the house, there was no excuse for me to be lazy in my inquisition of the world around me. However, times have changed. Encyclopedia Britannica recently announced they are ceasing with the production of printed reference material. Job searches and applications are performed almost entirely online. We can watch videos inside of books now! And those are just a few of the things we are able to do online now. People are engaging in dialogue about important issues over Twitter, YouTube, and blogs. It’s not uncommon for us to know something about current events in foreign countries before many of their citizens know about it and vice versa. Often, that news reaches us before the press catches wind of it. President Obama even stated that it’s a human right to have access to the Internet.
I argue, though, that access is not enough. After all, what’s the point in having access to Monster.com if we don’t know how to write a résumé, understand how our values and strengths align with a company, or how to search for other pieces of information? Sure, you might get the job, but what if you knew how to make sure you were offered a fair wage? Women, who are typically grossly underpaid compared to their male counterparts, have an especially difficult time with this. No. Access is not enough. Literacy is increasingly important as well—and it involves much more than knowing how to perform a Google search. The digital divide was once thought to be an issue of class and location. The lack of infrastructure dominated the public discourse. And it’s true, it is largely a class issue. If you live in a place without access to broadband, then you may find yourself at a disadvantage. But it’s not only a fight between the reach and poor. The haves and have nots can exist in any social structure and class as well as the most urban, suburban, or rural or places.