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Digital Equity

CUNY is going to be shut for another week or so as part of a “recalibration”.

The problem is that the sudden shift to online teaching has placed a burden on the collective infrastructure of society. Internet traffic has exploded so much, with everyone now video lecturing or putting materials online or checking their emails, and while we joke that every student has a smartphone that’s better than my laptop, the reality is that it takes more than a smartphone.

What this plague is going to reveal are all the little cracks in our society that have been masked by those near the top.

K-12 schools closed? Good idea. Except, for a “civilized country,” we have an embarrassingly large number of kids whose only meals of the day come from school lunches.

Online classes? Good idea. Except, for a “civilized country,” we have an embarrassingly bad broadband infrastructure in rural areas.

Perhaps the fundamental problem comes from the sentiment, begun by Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, that seniors are willing to die for their country:

https://www.snopes.com/ap/2020/03/25/texas-lieutenant-governor-says-us-should-get-back-to-work/

But that misses the point. It’s not whether you are willing to die for the country.

It’s whether the country is willing to kill you to make money.

Some people and some companies get it: they understand that human life is more valuable than cash flow.

Comast is offering a variety of free services: https://corporate.comcast.com/covid-19

Zoom has expanded the functionality of its free accounts: https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexkonrad/2020/03/13/zoom-video-coronavirus-eric-yuan-schools/#618bd2594e71

Kahoot! has done something similar: https://kahoot.com/blog/2020/02/27/kahoot-free-access-schools-higher-education-coronavirus/

These things help, of course (and after the crisis, they’ll have a whole batch of new customers who’ve learned to rely on them, so what they’re doing is both altruistic and good business). But the fundamental problem remains our digital infrastructure. Free service from Comcast, with videoconferencing by Zoom and polling with Kahoot! won’t help the student trying to access the internet on cables put down in the 1990s.

Digital infrastructure is (in the 21st century) as fundamental to living as water and electricity. It’s as important as roads. It’s a critical as fire and police departments.

So the question you have to ask yourself is this: How much should the government support this critical part of society?

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