friends and family reunion road trip: a story about the digital divide

I separated out this story, because I didn't want to give the impression that it ruined our day -- and because I wanted to properly explicate it. The events were of minor consequence to us personally, but of major importance in the world at large.

We hit a technology snag, and it was a perfect example of how the digital world -- and the absence of paper, analog options -- frustrates and excludes people. It was the kind of thing I see happen in the library all the time. This is about access, and the barriers that prevent large segments of our society from full participation.

I am rarely on the other side of this divide, and at least I can afford to lose a little money in the process, but it royally pisses me off on behalf of others. This massive social change has taken place, very rapidly. And in our current society, it's all been designed for the profit of a few companies (and likely a few choice corrupt individuals working in government), and for the "convenience" of educated, middle-class people, with no thought to all the people who the change leaves behind.

Here's what happened. 

We wanted to leave our car at the BART station. The information we found online seemed to indicate that we needed to reserve a parking space. After a while, with time and patience, I found out how to do this online. I paid for three days of parking at $6 per day -- a good deal. 

The website said we needed to print the permits. In the FAQs, I learned there were no machines to print parking receipts at the stations, although these are quite common these days. The FAQs suggested saving the permits as a pdf and printing them yourself. Notice how the "hidden competencies" to navigate this system are piling up.

I'm guessing most people reserve parking on their phones, and I already know that most people don't have printers. Maybe they can print permits at work, but not everyone can do that. 

The link to "print this permit" went to the first screen -- where you begin the process of obtaining a permit -- i.e., it sends you around in circles. There was no way to create a pdf. A screenshot would not have helped. There was no way to print at all, except through a link.

After dropping off the dogs at daycare, we came back to the cottage and happened to see the host. I asked where we could print something -- hoping she would offer to do it -- and she suggested a nearby copy shop. We found that fairly easily. I went inside. I was the only customer there. The owner was on the phone in what sounded like a personal phone call (but perhaps wasn't). He didn't greet me or ask how he could help me or say "I'll be right with you". He just continued talking on the phone.

I said I needed to print something and he gestured towards a sign with the copy shop's email address. I knew what he meant -- that I could email him my document at that address -- but (a) I couldn't do that because I didn't have a file, and (b) that destroys customer privacy, so there must be a more secure way to print. 

With the (presumed) owner still on the phone, I said I didn't have a file, only a link. He waved at a computer. Not only is this absolutely awful customer service, but what if I didn't understand what he meant?!

Here comes the kicker.

I logged into my Gmail account, but because I was using a new device, I needed to verify my access by letting Gmail send a text to my phone. The phone that died on the ferry to Nanaimo. 

I see this happen all the time in the library, with people who cannot afford phones. We are all expected to have smartphones and 24/7 access to the internet. But these everyday essentials are very expensive. They stretch the budgets of some, and are completely out of the question for many.

Back in the car, we discussed our options. By this time, the parking reservation had already expired, so there was no point going to heroic efforts to print the stupid thing.

We drove to the BART station, and were very surprised to find a huge, mostly empty parking lot! There were 20 or 30 cars parked in the reserved section, and many spaces in the non-reserved section. We parked, intending to buy parking for the day -- even though we had already paid for a spot.

Inside the station, we navigated how to buy a Clipper card. Signage was minimal, and the screens had limited information. We did it, of course, but it is clearly a system designed for people who already know how to use the system. Anyone else would need someone walking them through the steps. But of course there is no one to do that, no city pays anyone to do that. (Sometimes in the busiest, most touristed stations in New York and other cities that rely on tourism, there will be an "ambassador" worker to help -- which is awesome. But 99% of stations are not going to have that.) 

We bought a card -- which is $3.00 just to buy, plus the dollar value you add to it. Using the card gives you a discount -- a discount only available to people with who have credit cards and digital skills. At least San Francisco has free transit for kids and seniors. Most cities don't.

Paying for parking? Only available after you've passed the transit turnstiles and only by cash. What. The. Fuck.

I was happy to leave the car there without a parking slip. I could tell that would be fine. Allan was antsy about this, thinking we might get a ticket or be towed, but I had a strong sense that neither would happen. 

On the train on the way into the city, we talked about all of this. Allan said, here's what should happen in order to take public transit: you go to a station and get on a train. 

He's right. Public transit is a public good. It's something we want every town and city to have and every person to use. It should be fully accessible and free.

But private corporations see public transit as an opportunity for profit, and those corporations hold governments in their pockets. So public money -- our taxes -- are shoveled over to private companies. Those companies then take perfectly workable systems, systems that have been working for decades, and in some cases for more than 100 years, and "modernize" them to make them "convenient". And in the process of modernizing, governments allow systems to be created that exclude huge segments of our society. 

I personally love transit cards and I use them whenever possible. But I recognize that they are exclusionary. They are instruments of privilege. And wherever these cards are introduced, they very quickly become not options, but necessities. The parallel, analog system is allowed to wither and die. (See also, two-tiered health care.)

We did not get a parking ticket, and we now know we can leave the car in the BART parking lot for "free", thereby not completely wasting the $18 we spent on invisible permits. But, as I hope I have made clear, that is not the point.


laura k said...

Now I'm getting email from "Select-A-Spot.com" telling me my payment was successful. Yep, the payment was successful.

allan said...

You should send this post to the companies involved.

Amy said...

Excellent essay on the digital divide and something most of us who are privilged are mostly oblvious to. I think this deserves a wider audience---at least the companies involved, as Allan said, but maybe a letter to the editor or an op-ed piece in newspapers for many urban places.

I consider myself fairly adept at digital stuff and a pretty smart person. But I remember several years ago trying to get on the subway in NYC and being totally overwhelmed. No more tokens, no human beings, just machines. And all I needed was one fare to get to Brooklyn. I could not figure out the machine and, of course, lost several dollars trying. No one would help me. New Yorkers in a rish just knwq what to do. Finally two transit officers came near, and I in desperation begged them for help. They also couldn't figure out how to get one fare out of the machine. They kindly let me through the turnstiles for free. I think they saw how on the edge I was!

laura k said...

I'm sorry that happened to you! Thank goodness for the kind transit cop.

Thanks for this positive feedback. I hadn't thought of it that way. Maybe I'll punch it up a bit and submit it to a few places.

Abby said...

Hear, hear. I think about this a lot. Many of my drug court folks are very limited in their access to all this technology, and it constantly frustrates me that we are all supposed to have and know how to use multiple, ever-changing online tools and apps.

On a somewhat humorous note - a fewer years ago, I was in a fender bender with a millennial who had a meltdown when I said I couldn’t send him my insurance info via phone. He honestly couldn’t figure out how he would get my info, and started calling me “uncooperative.” I literally laughed in his face like a crazy old lady, and said, “I’M GONNA WRITE IT DOWN, JUST LIKE WE DID IN THE OLD DAYS.” 🙄

With God's Help said...

@Abby so funny!

Laura, thanks for hilighting the digital divide to your readers. My own kuds don't have cell phones yet the assumption at school is that all kids do. There are frequently tasks that require cell phone use for in class activities (pre-Covid), which really makes them stand out. Other activities require them to take pictures with their (non-existent) cell phones.

laura k said...

Class activities that require cell phones?!?! THAT IS RIDICULOUS.

I'm sorry your kids have to go through that. It makes me angry at the school.

At one library branch I worked in, families would come in at night to (try to) do the kids' homework, which required a computer. It was an area with a high concentration of refugee families, and naturally they did not have computer or internet at home. A whole family would use all the available computers, with another family waiting for their turn.

Often people wouldn't have saved their work before the time had run out, and they would leave empty handed. We would try to prevent that from happening, but it was a very busy branch and we couldn't track every customer. It was horrible.