Seven hundred words on Internet access

I wrote this a few months ago, and never published it. Here you go.

In the summer of 2017, I biked from Boston, MA to Montreal, QC. I rode across Massachusetts, then up the New York/Vermont border, weaving between the two states over two days. I spent the night in Washington County, NY at a bed and breakfast that generously fed me dinner even though they weren’t supposed to. One of the proprietors told me about his history as a physics teacher, and talked about volunteer work he was doing. He somewhat casually mentioned that in his town there isn’t really internet access.

At the time (at least) Washington County wasn’t served by broadband companies. Instead, for $80 a month you could purchase a limited data package from a mobile phone company, and use that. A limited data package means limited access. This could mean no or limited internet in schools or libraries.

This was not the first time I heard about failings of Internet penetration in the United States. When I first moved to Boston I was an intern at One Laptop Per Child. I spoke with someone interested in bringing internet access to their rural community in Maine. They had hope for mesh networks, linking computers together into a web of connectivity, bouncing signals from one machine to another in order to bring internet to everyone.

Access to the Internet is a necessity. As I write this, 2020 is only weeks away, which brings our decennial, nationwide census. There had been discussions of making the census entirely online, but it was settled that people could fill it out “online, by telephone, or via mail” and that households can “answer the questions on the internet or by phone in English and 12 Non-English languages.” [1][2]

This is important because a comprehensive census is important. A census provides, if nothing else, population and demographics information, which is used to assist in the disbursement of government funding and grants to geographic communities. Apportionment, or the redistribution of the 435 seats occupied by members of the House of Representatives, is done based on the population of a given state: more people, more seats.

Researchers, students, and curious people use census data to carry out their work. Non-profits and activist organizations can better understand the populations they serve.

As things like the Census increasingly move online, the availability of access becomes increasingly important.

Some things are only available online – including job applications, customer service assistance, and even education opportunities like courses, academic resources, and applications for grants, scholarships, and admissions.

The Internet is also a necessary point of connection between people, and necessary for building our identities. Being acknowledged with their correct names and pronouns decreases the risk of depression and suicide among trans youths – and one assumes adults as well. [3] Online spaces provide acknowledgment and recognition that is not being met in physical spaces and geographic communities.

Internet access has been important to me in my own mental health struggles and understanding. My bipolar exhibits itself through long, crushing periods of depression during which I can do little more than wait for it to be over. I fill these quiet spaces by listening to podcasts and talking with my friends using apps like Signal to manage our communications.

My story of continuous recovery includes a particularly gnarly episode of bulimia in 2015. I was only able to really acknowledge that I had a problems with food and purging, using both as opportunities to inflict violence onto myself, when reading Tumblr posts by people with eating disorders. This made it possible for me to talk about my purging with my therapist, my psychiatrist, and my doctor in order to modify my treatment plan in order to start getting help I need.

All of these things are made possible by having reliable, fast access to the Internet. We can respond to our needs immediately, regardless of where we are. We can find or build the communities we need, and serve the ones we already live in, whether they’re physical or exist purely as digital.

[1]: https://census.lacounty.gov/census/ Accessed 29.11.2019
[2]: https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2019/03/one-year-out-census-bureau-on-track-for-2020-census.html Accessed 29.11.2019
[3]: https://news.utexas.edu/2018/03/30/name-use-matters-for-transgender-youths-mental-health/ Accessed 29.11.2019

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