Information Deserts

By mmckale

Access to information is widely viewed as a core principle of democratic society. But what if there are populations who don’t know how to find what they need, or even know that it is available to them? This thought occurred to me as I read Chapter 1 of “The Wealth of Networks” by Yochai Benkler. Benkler, an optimist who believes deeply in the potential power of the internet as a force for good, argues that “From a more substantive and global perspective focused on human development, the freedom to use basic resources and capabilities allows improved participation in the production of information and information-dependent components of human development.” [1] While this is almost certainly true, Benkler’s reasoning relies on the assumption that potential users (and producers) of information know how to access and use it.

As we discussed this topic in class, I thought of the library in my neighborhood, the people who use it, and what they might use it for. The library, obviously, houses a wealth of information, and also provides practical services like help with becoming a citizen and registering to vote. But how do people learn how to access that information? How do people even know where their library is? What if they don’t have one in their neighborhood, or town? I believe that, in fact, there may be vast “information deserts” here in our own city, as well as around this country and the world, where most people are not able to access the resources that are, in theory, available to them.

The idea of an “information desert” is based on the “food desert” concept, defined by the USDA as “…parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas…largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.” [2] An information desert, therefore, might refer to both geographic areas without libraries or perhaps internet access, as well as groups of people – the elderly, possibly, or non-English speakers, or people without cell phones or home computers – lacking the ability to access available resources.  

A specific example of the latter concept is discussed by Jeff Cohen in his 2013 article, “Living in a College Information Desert.” Cohen responds to a piece in the New York Times, “Better Colleges Failing to Lure Talented Poor,” which highlights a disturbing statistic: “Only 34 percent of high-achieving high school seniors in the bottom fourth of income distribution attended any one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges.” [3] Cohen argues that “This phenomenon is largely due to a lack of information and access to cultural capital (i.e., knowledge about college and the associated application and financial aid processes)” and that “there are entire neighborhoods and even regions where nobody knows about or has attended selective colleges or, more importantly, that there are meaningful differences between the colleges that one might attend with respect to support, learning environments and graduation rates.” [4]

The effects of this situation are far-reaching. As the Times article points out, the graduation rate for low-income students attending local colleges is only 50 percent, versus 89 percent at selective colleges. [5] This fact alone limits the future prospects of these students, without factoring in that graduates of selective colleges will likely have better job opportunities than those who graduate from local colleges. When high-achieving students don’t attend universities with high academic standards, they are denied opportunities for success – and the world is denied their potential contribution.

The Times article suggests that the onus is on universities to address this issue. [6] Cohen has a number of suggestions, including funding more college counselors and programs that bring graduates from selective colleges to high schools in low-income communities. [7] I think a combination of efforts could, in this case, have a significant effect. I also think there is a role for the government, especially in ensuring that all public high school students know how to apply for financial aid (which may open up more possibilities for them).

More broadly, information deserts affect a variety of populations (but especially those in low-income communities). How, for example, do the unemployed search for jobs? If one has a home computer with internet access, we might say that it’s easy enough to use employment websites. But what if one doesn’t have a computer or internet at home? They can certainly use the library. But what if their community doesn’t have a library, or it’s too far or difficult to reach? This limits their options to a very narrow scope. (And even if they do have internet access, we are assuming that they know what sites to use and how to use them; we assume that they know how to write a resume and cover letter, etc; this is a different kind of information desert, perhaps – an information literacy desert.)

Benkler’s fantasy of the internet as a great equalizer has merit. But we still live in a time when not everyone can access the internet, and not all of those who can know how to use it to their advantage. This will surely change organically over time as our culture becomes more and more “plugged in.” But in the meantime, we must work to ensure that all populations have ways of accessing information that is critical to their lives. This may mean bringing computers into senior centers; providing free wifi in public spaces; advertising campaigns advising people as to where they can find information they need; and any number of other case-specific solutions. Awareness of the issue is the first step towards finding a remedy.

[1] Benkler, Y. (2006). “Introduction: a moment of opportunity and challenge” in The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Yale University Press, 1–18.

[2] http://americannutritionassociation.org/newsletter/usda-defines-food-deserts

[3] Leonhardt, Dave. “Better Colleges Failing to Lure Talented Poor.” The New York Times, March 16, 2013.

[4] https://www.fsg.org/blog/living-college-information-desert

[5] Leonhardt, Dave. “Better Colleges Failing to Lure Talented Poor.” The New York Times, March 16, 2013.

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://www.fsg.org/blog/living-college-information-desert

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