I went into my neighborhood library a few days ago. It was an interesting experience. Everywhere was a sense of “new oldness” (alternatively “old newness”) that one comes to expect in a library: materials well organized, furniture polished, carpets clean – but everything a few years out of date. That is what gives the library its charm.
I could immediately see the usefulness of the place. It is a physical gathering point for books, ideas, and people. Libraries can be where a parent can impart the importance of learning onto a child, a place of study or reflection for the individual, where groups of kids can chat or play games (albeit quietly), a place where a writer can discuss her new book, or a community can gather to discuss a given public policy. I think libraries are great.
An offshoot of the library is the public computer center. This is a place where people, ideas, and computers can gather. As I’ll explain, this is a bad idea. Unfortunately, the federal government has spent 4 billion dollars building them all over the country.
Remember the “Stimulus Package”?
It wasn’t that long ago that the American economy was in free fall. In an effort to keep from falling off a cliff, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This is more commonly known as the “stimulus package”. A small portion of this package, 7.2 billion, was geared towards improving our digital environment. 4.7 billion was earmarked for the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). The BTOP is devoted to “support[ing] the deployment of broadband infrastructure, enhance and expand public computer centers, encourage sustainable adoption of broadband service, and develop and maintain a nationwide public map of broadband service capability and availability.”
The idea – one universally seen as a good one – was to connect as many people as possible to the fastest networks. My focus here will be on the public computer centers, or PCCs. In 2010, the federal government awarded 233 contracts to build PCCs across the country.
Is There a PCC Near You?
It was a slow weekend, so I took some time to look at the documentation for several of the contracts. I looked at the proposals, the amount funded, and the quarterly reports they were required to submit. You can see a list of contracts awarded here, and a map of where the PCCs are here. I’ll mention three:
- Neighborhood Empowerment and Support through Teamwork Community Technology Center in Bayou La Batre. If Bayou La Batre sounds familiar it is the same Bayou La Batre that Bubba spoke so passionately about in Forrest Gump. There is an underserved South East Asian community in Bayou La Batre, and monies were provided to provide “a range of training in computer skills,online accounting, and web marketing. Instructors will also offer basic training on computer use and Internet access for those with limited computer literacy with training in English, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Khmer, and Lao.”
- South Carolina Reach for Success. The PCCs here are in South Carolina’s community colleges and technical schools, and will be open to both students and the general public: “This project will open these community college computer centers to the general public for the first time and plans to nearly double the number of workstations to approximately 3,260, which will accommodate an increase in users per week from 17,000 to 38,000.”
- Maine Public Library Information Commons Project. Here, the traditional library is combined with a PCC: “The Maine State Library plans to upgrade public computer centers at as many as 107 public libraries statewide and increase the number of available broadband workstations by as much as 60 percent by deploying approximately 500 new workstations and upgrading an additional 150.”
By my rough estimate, from the 233 contracts awarded, there are at least 300 public computer centers in the United States. Now, the question is…do you know where your nearest public computing center is?
It is About Networks and Norms, not Computers and Centers
I looked at the reports for the three PCC contracts and rough measures of success or failure were documented. For the most part, the award recipients accomplished their goals. For the three above, results seemed mixed. The Maine Public Library Information Commons Project, projected that 682,794 would use their PCCs in the three year period from when monies were awarded until all monies were dispersed. At the end of the three years, in September of 2013, 869.386 were served. For PCCs in Bayou La Batre the numbers were 4,554 projected and 2,706 served. For South Carolina’s Reach for Success, the numbers were 26,880 and 46,918.
These numbers are raw, but for the most part they suggest that people are using the PCCs. But I am skeptical as to the meaning behind these numbers. Here are a few reasons why:
- How free are the networks? Are there limits or restrictions to what can be downloaded or uploaded? Are certain Internet searches blocked? Must users have a log-in? These measures all fall under the rubric of security. I understand why these measures would be in place. The computers need to be protected from viruses. Thus a log in must be used in order to detect troublemakers. Moreover, you got some unsavory people out there who could be downloading (or uploading) illegal data – child porn, messages related to terrorist acts, etc. But as a consequence this is not a public computer center in the same way that one enjoys a public park or a public library. I don’t need an ID to read a book, and usually certain areas of a park are not blocked.
- How is software handled? This is an issue because users are wedded to using a certain device hard wired to the network. Because of the variety of software and the speed of change in software a computer center may find it hard to stay abreast of these changes. Moreover, for people to use computer networks to their greatest potential they must be able to customize their computing experience. Can a public computer center handle the variety of needs of their consumers?
Problems 1 and 2 are unavoidable because legislators tried to wed the concept of the public library to computing by making money available for public computing centers. You got books in a physical space for learning. Lets put computers in a physical space for learning. But this is a mistake for the reasons listed above.
What will happen in these PCCs is that people will understand that their computing experience is heavily regulated, heavily monitored, and not suited to their needs. The PCC will be understood as an antiseptic space not for computing or learning to live in the digital environment but for what the authority figure in the room says it is for: emailing a resume, learning basic computer skills, or learning English. Forget about learning to use Skype to speak with family members across the country.
The vast majority of people who do not have Internet access at home will find it far more meaningful to go to a coffeeshop and use their Wi-Fi than go to a PCC. This is because private businesses provide the network and have routinized a set of norms for using that network. People know that as long they buy a cup of coffee they have a more meaningful computing experience in a Dunkin Donuts than in a PCC.
How About a PNC?
Clearly a lack of hardware is a problem for many. One possible way forward is to refit slightly older computers from universities and schools with new, but lighter free software like Ubuntu and making these available to people in need. In my view, computer hardware will go the way of the TV and the microwave – appliances that people throughout the income spectrum can afford and will buy.
The real problem is making access to fast networks affordable. Just the network. Access to a quality network is all people need to unleash their creativity. My suggestion would be to have public spaces that offer wired and wireless connections to broadband: a “PNC” or a public networking center. People would have to provide their own hardware. No matter. Old hardware on a fast network will fulfill the needs of 90% of people. These PNCs would be much cheaper and less onerous to operate because you would not have to worry about maintaining computers. Big brother would need to stay out of it – no log-in or credentials required. It is a free public service in every sense of the word.
Here is a thought…maybe we can put these PNCs inside libraries! People can use their computers in a networked environment where materials are well organized, the furniture is polished, and the carpets clean – but everything is a few years out of date.