Dear Diary: The Almighty Internet
When I was in my early 20’s – so, 500,000,000 years ago – I moved around a lot. I could say it was the wanderlust of youth, but in reality I was just flat broke and was constantly chasing a rent I could stay on top of once my student loans ran out. Eventually, I moved in with my Tia Nena in Echo Park. She was in her 90’s and spoke only Spanish, and had lived in this home since leaving Mexico as a small girl (apart from a brief tenure in Arizona on the way to California).
For those of you who don’t know, the Echo Park/Silverlake neighborhoods of Los Angeles used to be largely working class and brown, a hub of Central and South American immigrants. My family was no different. I asked Nena why they chose to live there, once. “That’s where we were allowed to go,” she said. It was one of the few times she responded to a question of mine in English.
Nena and I had an interesting set up: I hadn’t known her well before I moved in, and to say I was socially awkward at the time would be an award-winning understatement. She didn’t speak much English (or at least, she didn’t care to speak much English) and I didn’t speak much Spanish, but we made it work. Every morning I would go to work with a cheerful “Vaya con Dios” at my back and every night I came home and marveled that she climbed each of those 30+ stairs (I’m guessing, I never actually counted them) to get the newspaper every morning and the mail every night. She credited her longevity to those stair trips. She was probably right.
That was 2012, and the neighborhood had long since started changing. The cottage next door had been bulldozed for a pretty white box, a tasteful modern home that I regarded as nothing short of a monstrosity. I’m sure it had air conditioning, and top notch WiFi, and a dishwasher. Things Nena’s little house didn’t have. But it also didn’t have the bright pink blossoms trailing lazily over the old wooden windows. It didn’t have floorboards that creaked with memories. It’s only legacy was like the architecture: cold. Austere. The kind of house where the inhabitants probably listened to tech podcasts. It was a house of the future.
Another thing Nena’s house didn’t have… it didn’t have internet. Shocking, right? I can’t believe a 97 year old woman living by herself who still used a tiny old tube television to watch the news in Los Angeles didn’t have the internet hooked up. And as hesitant as I was to ask, I was also 22. Of course I asked. And once she stopped looking at me like I had horns growing out of my head, she cautiously agreed to let me have someone come into the house and establish an internet connection.
I was blacklisted from Time Warner Cable at the time (I probably still am, but I just don’t… care anymore); to make a long and deeply uninteresting story short, they said I never turned in a cable box that I had spent a day of my life driving out to bumfuck nowhere just to return, in the heart of a September heatwave, in my non-AC having PT Cruiser. Not today, Satan. So I went online and found a small internet provider that would give me a wired connection for a price I could almost afford. Fine. The guy came out and drilled a small hole in the floor – Nena almost revoked my permission. But eventually things settled and when the man left, I was able to connect my laptop (and my laptop alone) to the internet by plugging a cable into the ethernet port. (I don’t even think my current laptop HAS an ethernet port.) It was a production, getting back online, and the end product was merely passable: but I was able to do it despite my limited resources and a skeptical elder looking over my shoulder.
Why am I telling this story? This week’s episode is about infrastructure: the frameworks our lives are built upon. If it took all of that in the heart of Los Angeles, just because it was an older home – how many people who are more and more expected to live parts of their lives entirely online are facing access issues for reasons entirely out of their own control? I’m a millennial who in 2012 couldn’t face the prospect of not being plugged in at home: and I was right. The internet is how you get jobs. It’s how you keep in touch with people. It’s how you date, for a lot of us. It matters. Being online matters. And it’s a problem that something that is a fully fledged utility in 2021 is still being treated as a luxury. People in remote areas and poor urban areas and any area that the powers-that-be have deemed less important still need the same access and connectivity that those of us privileged enough to have relative ease-of-access have. Need, not want. And so to me, the central theme of this episode is equity: as a society, we spend a lot of time discussing how to make things fair for the most privileged among us. “Be fair to politicians!” “Don’t ask billionaires to pay taxes!” “Racism is bad, but making white people aware of it is the REAL evil!” You know the drill.
I think it’s time we start considering equity for the rest of us.