May 30, 2009

Homeless Yet Technology Bound

I could not help being amazed with the article in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal called “On the Street and On Facebook: The Homeless Stay Wired.”

I was very struck by the seeming contradiction between near total poverty and yet being linked to one of the richest sources of information and human connection on earth.

The article is about people who are so poor and wanting that they are literally homeless—living in shelters, cars, under bridges—and yet with virtually no money for anything, they find that having a computer and an Internet connection is a necessity!

What a comment on the impact that information technology has on our lives and how it affects us every moment of every day. Three key points about the Internet and social media that stand out:

  1. They are no longer an option, but an answer to basic human needs.
  2. They provide a sense of basic equality and human dignity, as well as empowerment, even where those are otherwise lacking.
  3. Because they are so vital to people, they are serving to unlock great creativity and innovation by people to get connected.

Computers and the Internet connectivity we get with them is so important to us ALL that even homeless shelters are now rolling out computer stations—almost like an internet café or library. For example, NYC “has 42 computers in five of the nine shelters it operates and plans to wire the other four this year” and this is happening despite the devastating financial environment out there.

So do the homeless really use the computers? You better believe it—computer demand is so great in the shelters that users are limited to 30-minute intervals.

The homeless are finding the computers important for completing everything from housing and job applications to getting loads of inexpensive entertainment whether watching videos, listening to music or just getting the daily news.

The homeless are finding innovative ways to power their computers…some are using generators outside the tent homes, others are hooking up to their car batteries or finding a deserted area with a connection to steal away from for a brief hookup.

But the computer and the connectivity are critical for everyone whether you live in a mansion or in a shelter. Information technology provides for all our basic needs in terms unlimited information and opinion, a broad range of social entertainment, and all sorts of application services, but more importantly it confers basic humanity to all that use it. As one homeless man stated: “It’s frightening to be homeless. When I’m on here [the Internet], I’m equal to everyone else.”

And this is really a global idea, because people across the world—whether in countries that are free and those that are unfortunately still not—are finding that a simple computer and Internet connection can break down the barriers of political, social, or economic repression.

Information technology once feared as the great digital divide is becoming the great human equalizer indeed.


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