Between A Surveillance Nightmare And The Digital Divide

Librarians are in an odd position, technologically. This is especially true of those lucky/unlucky folks who join me as the motley crew of the Good Ship Tech Librarian. We’re well informed enough to be afraid of the decline of net neutrality, “free” services, social engineering, and the weaponization of personal data. At the same time, being capable with Google Drive, WordPress, LinkedIn, and Instagram is allowing us to bring services to our patrons that we’d otherwise be unable to provide. Concurrent document sharing alone is a powerful tool that we’d have to pay hundreds, even thousands for if we weren’t paying with our data already.

At the same time, it is scary. Worst of all, we see patrons suffer when they don’t have access to these services. Kids without computers at home come to the library to log on to Google Drive to do their homework. Mom still working? Nobody to drive? That homework isn’t getting done. The looming threat of the digital divide isn’t going to hurt librarians. It’s going to hurt our most vulnerable patrons: the poorest, newest, most stressed Americans who are least capable of affording wifi or a new laptop.

Providing IT services to these populations has got to be a critical part of our mission now. Yes, we should keep the darn books – I hate it when people think of print and digital collections as some kind of zero-sum format war – but we need to recognize that it’s no longer possible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps by reading a lot. Even if it were, who has time for that nowadays? I’ve got a masters degree and I still work two jobs.

Warning vulnerable folks about how the Internet really works seems like part of our mission too, but what happens if those patrons’ outcomes are harmed thanks to our love/hate relationship with technology? Scaring a new tech user isn’t going to help them – they still need to know how to use the Internet, scary or not. At the same time, if your trustworthy local librarian doesn’t explain about how viruses work, you’re likely to be misinformed by the news anyway, while at the same time getting beguiled by safe-looking situations like the Facebook dumpster fire. Which, by the way, I check every morning and evening.

Education is the key. Not only do we need to start teaching our patrons about how to use tech and most importantly how to get it for free, but we need to do so in a coordinated and organized way. The profession also needs to agree on some guidelines and (brace yourselves) standards. We need to show people the back doors into the world of technology and how to avoid some of the pitfalls.

To that end, I have made a conceptual toolkit for vulnerable new tech users. These are skills and resources that I think we need to teach in public libraries, which means that librarians need to get good at them first.

THE TOOLKIT

Open Source Software

Oh my God the tyranny of Microsoft. Not only is their software expensive and vulnerable to exploitation, but it stops working at the weirdest moments. Recently, Microsoft has also started pushing people into 365 subscriptions, but my experience with that (expensive!) service has been poor. Why pay real money for a scheme that doesn’t even share well? Nevermind the concurrency problems.

There are open source alternatives to browsers, word processors, and even operating systems. Some are easy entry – LibreOffice, for example – and others require more technical fluency. Consider Ubuntu Linux the apex of a program series about open source. Not that your patrons can’t learn how to use it, but you’ll need to bone up on command line yourself and be prepared to help patrons with their first baby steps into managing an OS.

That said, if your patron is just using Ubuntu to do some word processing and use the Internet, they might never have to get into the thorniness that is¬†installing new programs. Even that is easier than it used to be when Ubuntu was a twinkle in the eye of Debian Linux, from which it sprang like Athena from the head of Zeus. There’s now a handy dandy software install tool that makes a lot of getting new software – most of it free and open – fairly easy. I’m writing this on a refurbished Ubuntu laptop right now. It may be a particularly ideal solution for young students who are flexible enough to absorb new skills. The real problem is finding librarians who are comfortable teaching it.

I’ve also had a great deal of luck introducing OpenOffice and LibreOffice to older computer users. If you’re patient, you can teach anyone how to use these. The controls are analogous to their brand counterparts, but they cost 100% less. The same goes for Gimp, Firefox, VLC Player, and other alternatives. When it comes to our patrons, being able to access technology in the first place is often a more urgent issue than protecting their privacy. Using open source alternatives can let them accomplish both of these goals in one swell foop. The only needful thing is a librarian who can introduce it all in a comprehensible way.

Brand product

Free/open source alternative

Internet Explorer, Chrome, Safari

Firefox, Tor
Microsoft Office LibreOffice, OpenOffice, Mozilla Thunderbird
Photoshop Gimp
iMovie, Windows Movie Maker HitFilm Express
Adobe Audition Audacity
Windows Media Player, iTunes VLC Player
Kindle services, Google Books Calibre
Windows, iOS Ubuntu Linux
Norton Antivirus, Trend Micro ClamAV

Distributed Freemium Services

Google tracks you. I tell this to everyone I meet. Literally. I just told it to a barista. At the same time, that tracking is payment for a valuable service. You’re never going to find a versatile cloud that doesn’t track you, paid or not, I don’t care what they say. Knowledge is power, data is valuable, and storing stuff in Google’s cloud is safer than keeping it on a home computer. This is especially true in the cases of patrons who don’t own computers or have wifi at home. They can’t keep information on library computers, but they should know that they can work on the same project over multiple library sessions, or even across multiple libraries. That’s why I generally recommend Google Drive to patrons, even as I explain – twice, when necessary – that their data will be aggregated, packaged, and made available to advertisers.

There’s a tightrope we need to walk when it comes to patrons whose lives are being harmed by lack of access to technology and technology education. Whatever their goals are, they often need an online foot locker, at least, to store resumes and letters. They need to practice word processing and data management skills in a place that’s “theirs,” if only in an abstract sense. Using Google for this isn’t awesome, but the next best option is Office 365, which costs money for equivalent service.

It’s bad that this is the choice we need to make, and I will always push for privacy whenever I can. But the bare fact is that most of our patrons couldn’t afford Google-level services if Google charged money for them.

There are alternatives. One is to walk around with a USB drive all the time. I have patrons who do this, and it’s a great solution until the drive fritzes. Portable hard drives are a more durable solution, but they’re bulky and expensive. Plus, if you need to collaborate, your drive will be unwieldy. Then there are the email services that patrons will need to use anyway, services that are “free” in the same way that Google and Facebook services are “free.” Your patrons’ data is already being harvested, whether or not they use an external storage unit. It’s inevitable. Our only power comes from making sure that they at least get some good service for what it’s costing them.

I feel like a Google shill when I say this, but ultimately, they have to pick *something.* It may as well be a robust suite of services that all work well, even if Alphabet’s days of non-evilness are long over the horizon.

Need My recommendation Why
Email Gmail Works well, best complimentary services
Cloud storage Google Drive Most space, best apps
Online search Duck Duck Go Anonymizing
Housing, goods, and services Craigslist Easy to navigate, no fees, local

IRL resources

Here’s where the librarian has to step up. It’s on us to be aware of the tech situation, up on the latest apps, and – yes – to be ready to do some basic repair. I’d die for some association-wide advanced IT training for librarians. I have lost count of the virus-riddled laptops I’ve had to deal with in the last four years. My best advice in cases where you’re in over your head is to locate the best small computer repair shop in your area (NOT BEST BUY) and develop a relationship. I’ve found one that’s run by a competent woman and her family, charges reasonable rates, doesn’t upsell, and isn’t mean to my elderly patrons. They get a lot of business from me. That said, as soon as I get far enough in my IT classes to be confident about fixing a sick laptop, I’m doing that service for free.

We tech librarians need to be proactive about learning command line, beta-testing new software, and providing the education that our patrons need. Sometimes, that will mean asking what patrons need. Sometimes, your programs will fail because nobody will show up. Sometimes, you’ll need to take a MOOC or ten before you feel like you can really help. It’s exhausting, but talk to your boss about setting aside work time for continuing ed and staff trainings. You don’t have to go at this problem alone or in a state of panic.

Likewise, you’re going to need to find a way to bring technology to your patrons. Circulating mobile hot spots can be a great way to do this, but it works best when you conduct a coordinated PR campaign to make sure that the neediest sections of your community are aware that this is an option. Circulating laptops and devices can be powerful, too, but it’s is expensive. You might have to content yourself with setting up shop at a farmer’s market, YMCA, or school for a certain amount of time every day, every few days, every week, etc. At first, anyway. Bring computers, a hot spot, and your bad self. We’ll bridge this digital divide, so help us. If we don’t, nobody else will.

Teach other librarians. Teach your patrons. Make yourself a constant resource. Hold IT repair days. Look around your community for the cracked screens that aren’t getting fixed, the resumes that aren’t getting formatted right, and the passwords that are ever getting lost. These are places where a librarian can provide services. Provide.


Today in “Be Careful What You Wish For”

A lot of the tech help that I perform is for my older patrons. A lot of these folks had never had an email account before they got Verizon or Comcast Internet service, which they only got in the first place because it came with their cable service.

Historically, I have had issues with how the Verizon and Comcast email services have operated.

  1. They just suck. The interfaces are confusing and unintuitive. They’re spam magnets. Even functionality is uneven. Attachments fail to send, device tie-in is weak, the service blocks random useful/important stuff, pages fail to load, etc. Problems! I have so many.
  2. When the Internet service ends, so does access to the email service.

How often did I wish for Verizon email to disappear forever! And of course, as of early 2018, it did. The company graciously admitted that there were “more capable” email services out there…because it had acquired one.

Verizon acquired AOL. AOL? Really? Yup.

Then it force-migrated all of its customers over, causing my elderly patrons to be terribly confused. AOL isn’t exactly the prince of email providers itself, but if it’s a frog then at least it’s a step up from the actual slug-on-a-hot-sidewalk email service that Verizon used to provide.

In fact, AOL seems to have improved things somewhat in terms of service quality. It appears that users can keep their AOL accounts after Verizon service termination even though their addresses would still read as “@verizon.net”. Apparently getting acquired by a powerful Internet provider has its perks.

So ultimately, I don’t have a problem with the fact that Verizon sent everyone to AOL. I have a problem with the fact that this is the tech landscape that my older patrons have to deal with. As far as most of them are concerned, using the Internet is like doing Crossfit: it looks cool, the results are often impressive, but they’d generally prefer not to participate. They won’t choose to switch email providers given a chance, and when it happens to them regardless, it just cements their already-established distrust of technology and sense of helplessness.

But it’s not optional. They can’t not have email. It’s their conduit to their families, how they request housing services, how they talk to their doctors, how they apply for jobs. And stuff like this will keep happening – the Internet is an unstable place and businesses (and email services) will come and go. If tech keeps advancing like it is now, I wonder what I’ll find bewildering when I’m 75 and how it will impact my own life. I suspect the key to avoiding my patrons’ fate is to use tech and keep using it, even if that means corneal implants and universal biometric ID. That’s going to require a sustained financial investment that librarian-me may one day be unable to afford, but that’s a topic for another post.

For my patrons, there’s no good solution except education, which of course I provide. It’s an issue that’s likely to keep my library in business for a long time. It’s not like there are basic tech classes out there for people who didn’t grow up with computers. It’s also a good answer to the flippant comments I get about library irrelevance.

Them: yuk yuk chuckle I didn’t even know we had libraries anymore guffaw!

Me: Who do you think taught your grandma to use Facetime?

On a side note, Verizon’s apparently acquiring parts of Yahoo too. Here’s hoping they fix the spam and scare page issues while not going mad with power and becoming a horrifying heterogeneous Internet monopoly that eats net neutrality laws for breakfast.