Recluses From a Digital Age

This weekend, I have the privilege of attending PublicMediaCamp 2010, an unconference run by iStrategyLabs along with NPR, PBS, and CPB. It’s the second one, and I’ve had a blast at both so far; many kudos to Peter Corbett and Andy Carvin, who have played host to the rest of us.

One of the sessions I attended today was called “Insert Your Issue Here,” on the challenge of encouraging communities to speak up about the issues most important to them. It was moderated by Nine Public Media (or the Public Media Organization Formerly Known as KETC), and among other experiences they shared, they mentioned that they worried, while producing their (fascinating) series of citizen perspectives on the immigration debate, that doing it as a web series was “too edgy” and might alienate a large part of their constituents.

“Um, what part would that be?” asked I, the naive technophile.

“People who are scared of computers.”

Note that these aren’t people who are too poor to have reasonable access to technology. These are not people who are forced by the nation’s economic policy to work three part-time jobs just to make ends meet, and have no time to enhance their education through public media. These are people of sufficient means and education who refuse to utilize the greatest change to the way that information is transmitted since the telegraph.

It’s interesting. Public media faces challenges on a number of sides these days, between attempts by the far-Right to “defund” them, and the simple changes over time (caused by the Internet, among other phenomena) in the way people gather their daily news. These challenges could decrease the utility of public media in the future, unless the media changes the way it works; PublicMediaCamp is about these issues, and overall, it seems like the public media is responding incredibly– indeed, infinitely more robustly than Big Content. At the same time as they are trying to adapt to the coming technological Singularity, however, they are being held back by the fear of alienating people who are refusing to use any technology invented after 1950!

Why does this make sense? We don’t make allowances for people who don’t use modern technology in other areas. We have banned driving on cars with leaded gasoline (outside NASCAR), we’ve prohibited businesses from producing or using lead paint and asbestos. Those are safety issues, of course, but we don’t allow people to avoid information through other measures: we have public notice laws, for instance, and we don’t try to make heroic measures to go to people who refuse to read the newspapers or the related signs. (Sure, Internet costs money– but so do newspapers, and actually quite a bit more per month than dialup or basic broadband. It’d be cheaper if industry didn’t keep killing municipal WiFi utilities, but that’s a different topic.)

Is it necessary, then, for public media organizations to go through such extreme contortions to protect people who’ve opted out of, in essence, modernity? If they want to be left behind– hermits, scrabbling for darkness to protect them from the bright lights of a world they refuse to acknowledge exists– perhaps we should let them; not to be too blunt about the subject, but the problem will eventually be solved for us (though not all such people are aged, perhaps the remainder will comprise too small a population to worry about). It’s a sad thing– as a native of the Internet age, I wish to spread information to everyone, and share with all the benefits of ubiquitous education, free for the asking– but perhaps, if we consider them our friends, it’s time to let go.