Data Plans and Techno-Gypsies

I feel like I'm becoming one of those old men who sends his children newspaper clippings, but nonetheless, As Data Flows In, the Dollars Flow Out, by Jenna Wortham, in the Sunday Style section of the NYT was thought-provoking.  The family featured in the article spends about $5000 a year for all it's digital media needs:  BlackBerrys, cellphones, DirectTV, broadband Internet, NetFlix, Xbox and PlayStation subscriptions.  The sum of these is one's data plan.

"It used to be that a basic $25-a-month phone bill was your main telecommunications expense", but this year, says Wortham, the average family will spend something like $2000 for these kinds of services.  I calculate that my wife and I currently spend about $1980 a year for phone and cable TV/Internet services, right in the ballpark.

Remember when getting a busy signal repeatedly when you tried to call someone usually meant that they were online?  We just used the phone line we already had, at no extra cost.  Not that I'm nostalgic about it.

For information workers like me, as for white collar workers in general, online access is everywhere now.  Most of my workday is spent online, using the library equivalent  of inventory and point-of-sale programs, and databases, e-mail and search engines.

Not so for our public-access workstation and wireless laptop users.  They don't have jobs that come with a desk and a PC.  They can't afford a "data plan".  They often give up the traditional home land-line,  with a cell phone as their only telecommunications device.

Back in the '80's, "techno-peasant" meant someone completely unskilled with computers, and you don't hear the term now. I was one of them, listening to Kraftwerk and wondering if I would be left behind in Computer World.

The new techno-peasants are these digital gypsies.  Far from being clueless about technology, they are often very good at using the Internet services they seek.  But $2k a year is not an option for them.  56k dial-up, even if they have a land line at home, is simply inadequate with today's data-rich Web.  They must use our public-access PC's, or get a laptop and use our free wireless access.  As a "tribe" they know where all the local "hot spots" and public access PC's are.

I estimate that a solid third of our public-access and wireless users are not library card holders, and only come to the library for Internet access.  A few have only the most basic skills, and don't even know how to save their work to a portable disk or drive.  The experienced users have equipped themselves with a Flash drive and a cheap pair of earbuds.

One young man I know, Richard, worked his way through school at FAMU on our public-access PC's, in his sweat pants and dreadlocks.  Now he comes in with a suit and a haircut.  So it can be done. 

Then there are the elite, the laptop owners, who can stake out our power strip-equipped carrels all day if they want.  We have a homeless man whose brother gave him his old laptop.  He got it working with a wireless card, and now has unlimited access at the library.

It can be unnerving.  We've got this one kid who spends all day every day in a carrel with his laptop, sometimes playing games, sometimes watching shows.  He's got earbuds, but when he's watching something funny, he erupts into loud laughter, back there in the 900's in the non-fiction wing.  We have to remind him where he is.  All the library is for him is an access point to somewhere else online.  It's just very strange.

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