Mobility, the digital divide, and technologies of cooperation

This art project (using a portable, foldable private telephone booth that people can take with them anywhere) is cute, but also pointed. The project points our attention toward our changing habits with (and by extension values about) private conversation in public space. It raises issues of individual rights to privacy and the collective right to civility in public.

But by putting public telephones back into public spaces (even if they’re only a humorous simulacrum of the original), this project vividly reminds me how such a basic public service has in a few short years lost relevance for haves, and has taken on increased relevance for have-nots (as argued in this Marxian review of the film Changing Lanes). I think ubiquitous mobile communications puts us in danger of creating communication traffic jams, talk traffic accidents, and a technoeconomic divide comparable to that created by the adoption of the automobile as a personal transportation device.

We can avoid some of these problems, of course, if we focus on deploying technologies of cooperation and community, such as illuminated on a daily basis over at SmartMobs. The growing use of wikis in building repositories of public information (e.g., wikipedia and other projects) and for team work in corporations is one example of this – an encouraging sign of what could be.

But there is much more work to be done than simply creating some new mobile phone game for tagging public space. There are still basic accessibility and knowledge deficiencies among lower economic classes and in rural spaces that we need to overcome. Here‘s a recent article by Paul Lamb that offers some insight into what steps we might take, in the light of his experience in ‘bridging the digital divide’ in the wired 1990s.

I’d like to collect more stories about the ups and downs, successes and failures of such intitatives. If anyone knows of case studies where some clear lessons have been learned about introducing new technologies to underserved groups where the intention is greater inclusiveness (in governance, community life, or whatever), I’d really like to hear from you.

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