Rural broadband isn’t closing gaps; it’s widening them
Soon they stopped asking me if things were true. They just shared the memes.
For many of us, internet is like water. It’s a big percentage of what we consume. It provides most of our news, opinions and culture. When internet becomes scarce we get antsy, wondering if we can survive.
The internet can be good or bad, just like water. A glass of water when you’re thirsty is a godsend. An ocean of water rushing into your ship or seaside village quickly becomes a disaster. Water can become lemonade, or it can be saturated with lead that causes developmental delays in children.
I’m from the generation that watched the tide come in. I learned how to type on an electric Smith Corona at my family’s kitchen table. During my junior year, staff wheeled in a special computer to the school library that would be connected to the internet, something I once heard described on the evening news.
A year later, after leaving northern Minnesota for college, I learned HTML and nurtured a long distance relationship through e-mail. In a few short years I became editor of my hometown newspaper on the Iron Range, helping implement the website that would soon sap our paid circulation, one day forcing a merger with the neighboring daily. Later I was an online college instructor, a blogger; and before long, a content creator. I didn’t have to wear pants for any of those jobs (though I chose to).
Along the way I advocated for the economic benefits of rural high-speed internet. I think my earliest writing supporting rural high speed internet came about 20 years ago. I’ve written more than 100 columns, essays and blog posts on the topic.
The logic of my cause went like this. The Silicon Valley boom of the early 2000s eliminated industrial jobs in places like the Iron Range, but created new jobs in tech and creative services. Those jobs would be closed off to rural and Rust Belt people if they could not access affordable, reliable high speed internet in their communities.
I still believe in that logic. Without internet, we can’t play in the sandbox of the 21st century economy. But I did not realize how much broken glass would come packaged with the sand toys.
Through the early 2000s, rural people used the internet sparingly, usually just for e-mail and a few of their favorite sites. But as the speeds kicked up, so did the usage. Before long, YouTube and social media became common, even replacing local newspapers as primary sources of community news.
In the early 2010s, a lot of people in my family would ask me about things related to the media or politics because I had experience with both. I remember shortly after everyone got on Facebook, a cousin asked me if something she read online was true. It was a meme featuring a picture of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. Text over the image said some version of, “I am reclaiming our former American colonies because the people there are incapable of governing themselves.”
“Is this true?” my cousin asked with complete earnestness.
Of course not, I said. It’s just a dumb joke that someone shared. But before long I saw other relatives sharing it and soon my cousin did, too.
Soon they stopped asking me if things were true. They just shared the memes, concluding that it didn’t matter whether they were true or not. Before long, family gatherings got weird. Cold-hearted memes and dagger-like Facebook reactions replaced the warmth of my childhood memories. We ceded the inherent trust that once existed within rural communities and families to the untethered corruption of the internet.
In 2016, I attended a community meeting in my home township to celebrate the coming expansion of high-speed internet to our area. At the time, I was managing the campaign of a friend of mine, DFL Rep. Tom Anzelc. He helped get the grant funding that made the expansion possible. As we looked out over the sea of excited people, we felt certain that this would be a winning campaign issue.
It wasn’t. My friend lost badly in the Trump wave that washed over rural Minnesota that year. We lost our township, and probably most of the votes at that community meeting a month earlier. As the internet got better and faster, it became possible to share more sophisticated YouTube videos and targeted advertising to local voters, who for the first time ever saw more than $100,000 in negative outside spending on a state House race.
Last year’s Democratic Congress and this year’s DFL-controlled Minnesota Legislature delivered historic spending for rural high speed internet. Though some doubt that Minnesota will achieve universal broadband immediately, the fact that it might be possible reflects the culmination of a long battle for equality between rural and urban Minnesota. But rural voters will not reward Democrats for this. In fact, rural voters dislike Democrats more than ever.
Perhaps that is because the economic adaptability made possible by universal broadband is no closer to reality. Rural people displaced by the changing economy don’t want to code software or write snarky articles for websites named Boink or Glurg. They want to work the jobs their parents had, and to preserve a world they once understood, even if it wasn’t particularly rosy.
This cultural yearning, righteous in origin, became a conduit for weaponized nostalgia and political rhetoric that has turned our country against itself, and now blocks any hope of rural areas like mine developing the kinds of industries that could keep pace with urban centers. A tradition of resilience has been replaced by one of deliberate suffering, compelled upon ourselves and those we hate the most. We’ll take your high speed internet and we’ll use it for violent nationalism. School board elections are now referenda on right-wing memes.
Back in the 1990s, during the short time between learning about the existence of the internet on the news and actually using it for myself, I wrote a short story on my family’s typewriter. It was in all-caps because I didn’t like using the shift key. It was about the horrific aftermath of the internet taking over the world. I found this story in a pile of things at my mom’s house several years ago. The bad writing embarrassed me, but also the message. After all, I then believed that the internet was good.
I now think my 14-year-old self had it right, even if his prose seemed inadequate to solve the problem. That hasn’t changed.
When a car veers into a river and becomes submerged, water pressure prevents the door from opening. Water slowly fills the cab of the vehicle. One might wait until the water rises to the ceiling and then open the door after the pressure equalizes. It’s a dangerous play, though. Will you have enough oxygen in that last breath to reach the surface?
As for the internet, we wait and wonder how much breath we’ll have left when everyone is fully submerged in conspiracy theories, misinformation and addictive social media sites. We hope it’s enough to restore common truth and save democracy for the people.
Did you know that the headrest of your car seat can be removed to break out the glass of your sinking car so you can get out? I wonder the equivalent for our lives online. I’d turn off my computer, but that’s where the money is.
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