Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The culture gap

I spent this morning in Cuyahoga Heights, talking to a meeting of the North Coast Educational Media Center, a group that provides -- to quote its Web site -- ''training, service, leadership, and coordination in the acquisition and responsible use of educational media including videos, on-line databases, and other resources, to our member schools.'' (You can find out more at its Web site, www.ncemc.org. )
I was there to talk about the ways the Internet has changed how I do my job, and to answer questions; as is so often the case with these talks, I had a great time, dealing not only with the big ideas about modern media but with the details of shows people cared about -- in this case, "American Dreams," "House," "Lost" and other programs.
It also gave me a chance to talk about a favorite topic, one we're facing across our culture, which is the cultural gap being created by advanced technologies. If you don't have access to the most modern ways that information is being delivered -- whether because of resistance or the lack of money to get the latest gear -- then you run the risk of falling behind those who do.
We've been seeing this gap for some time; when cable came in, for example, people willing to pay for it had access to 24-hour news channels conveying information and events that could not always be found on so-called "free" television -- that is, the over-the-air networks. (I say so-called "free" because whenever you have to sit through a commercial, you're paying with your time.) But it's becoming even more noticeable with the rise of the Internet, where anyone with a computer and online access can not only seek out information and commentary but add to it -- while those who don't have access are left to deal with whatever they can find on paper.
Don't get me wrong. I love books. I love things on paper. I have spent my share of time in libraries; I was in one on Sunday, and came back with three books and a selection of CDs. Still, the Internet is providing a new means of relaying information (as well as misinformation), creating a larger dialogue among people across borders and creating an expectation that information should be immediately accessible with a few strokes on a computer keyboard.
The gap isn't there, either. It's in homes that have held onto their VCRs in lieu of a DVD player, only to find that their favorite new movies are coming out only on disc, not on tape. It's in those homes that stayed away from cable -- only to see their beloved Indians leave broadcast TV -- or that embraced cable only to find that other interesting channels were in a higher service tier, with a new price tag and equipment attached. It's in the people trying to listen to the audio from a show designed for home theater systems, only they're listening through a couple of small speakers on their TV set. They're exposed to an image on a high-definition TV and realizing that they're missing something on their old analog receiver.
All of those things come with a cost, and not everyone is going to be able to pay it. The economic differences in society then become an informational difference as well. I don't know what that gap will lead to, but I fear that it's not going to be good.

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