Over the last year or so, SafeLink Wireless has brought a new group of people to the library, perhaps the most poor and illiterate that I have seen since my rural bookmobile days. SafeLink is a government-supported program offered by TracFone Wireless that provides a measure of telephone service to low-income heads-of-household. A free cell phone is mailed to qualified applicants, and they receive a limited number of free minutes per month. If they want more minutes, they can purchase additional time at a discounted rate from TracFone.
As people began to trickle in last year to apply for these SafeLink phones, it became quickly apparent that it would be less trouble to fill out the simple online application for them than to give them a PC and try to coach them through it. They couldn't read. If someone can't read at all, you can't even begin to give them pointers on using a PC. And to get the phone and basic, free service, they do not need an e-mail address, just a mailing address
Last week an older black woman came in with a friend, wanting to sign up for the TracFone plan offering additional minutes for a small monthly payment. As we negotiated the registration to sign up for for the plan, I had to ask her for an e-mail address. She bridled at this. She had counted on being billed by mail, and paying with a printed check. TracFone wanted an e-mail address and a credit card or bank account number.
It was a deal-breaker for her. They hadn't said anything to her about e-mail and credit cards. She seemed indignant at having to communicate with the company online, and she didn't want to give anyone her bank account number. She didn't have a computer, she said, and she wasn't interested in coming to the library to use our public-access computers. I gave her the toll-free SafeLink support number, and she left.
On Tuesday a white country woman asked me for help viewing her son's photo galleries online. He had shown them to her when she visited him in North Carolina, where he is stationed at Fort Bragg. They were on Facebook. Did she have a Facebook account? No. She would need a Facebook account to see them. To get one, she would need an e-mail address. She didn't want to jump though that hoop, and that was the end of that.
E-mail is still the supreme app of them all, the sine qua non of digital life. If you are a senior, perhaps retired, at any rate with a settled situation, I guess you still have the option of saying "No, thank you." It is not that simple for those who need jobs as manual laborers, but who are simply unable to make the leap.
I can't forget the woman who, several years ago, wanted to get a job at Tallahassee Memorial as a cleaning lady. It was easy to see that she had been a cleaning lady all her life, with her cotton dress, her support hose, and her sensible shoes. They'd told her to apply online, and it was just wrong. They might as well have told her to get a college degree. She couldn't do it, and she was probably an excellent cleaning lady.
In a just society, employers with positions not requiring computer-literacy would have to allow people to apply for those jobs in person.