An interesting piece appeared in the Friday, April 11 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, calling for a New Deal-like investment by America in youth and technology. The basic argument is that a new generation of technology savvy youth could be put to work leveraging their digital skills to create socially useful tools and engage in 21st Century public service. The OpEd sites a study listing the US as much lower down in rankings for broadband penetration (24th among industrialized countries), and uses this as reason to put millenials to work bettering our nation’s online offerings. What such studies often overlook is the fact that many Americans choose not to adopt broadband, for better or for worse, and many simply cannot afford to adopt it and all of the accompanying devices (i.e., computers) that make it valuable in the first place.
While I agree with the New Deal sentiment expressed in this article, I think the overall approach of “a swarm of arts and culture leaders, public interest and policy advocates, energetic young software developers, philanthropists, media reformers and forward-thinking politicians banding together in a broad coalition” is perhaps a bit pie-in-the-sky.
I think Robert Scoble’s point made at Next Web last week, about the new digital divide having much to do with who has friends and who doesn’t via online networks, is largely true. Having a better technology infrastructure and young, creative classes driving more digitally-enhanced tools will not necessarily increase broadband penetration and address the growing digital disequalibrium between those who are “connected” in our society and those who are not. And it would also do little to deal with poor technology design for and adoption among older and disabled users (as pointed out in this cranky New York Times article). In all fairness, the SF Chronicle piece does suggest an intergenerational exchange as part of the digital New Deal process.
Leveraging the digital expertise of young (unemployed) Americans to innovate on our collective behalf is, in theory, a good idea. And here already are some real funding dollars being put forth to actually do it. But, perhaps the money for a national program would be better spent putting young Americans to work directly in our decaying schools, helping to build stronger real world communities, and addressing problems of poverty, drugs, and social injustice on the street? Technology can certainly be a tool in that fight, not unlike what the AmeriCorps VISTA program is already doing in partnership with community technology centers, but having a “digital New Deal” without a real world counterpart IMHO is like employing Second Life as a central strategy to solving homelessness. A digital-centric strategy is simply not enough. A Digital New Deal may get young people more engaged and unleash some cutting-edge approaches, but all alone I doubt it can make a dent in solving the real, pressing problems before us.