I spend my workdays in front of a laptop — the primary tool of my trade. I use it to communicate with my staff, sources, and readers. I use it to post stories and blog for our website, to edit and write for the paper, to do Internet research, and to keep up with the news as it happens.
And all day long, my laptop communicates with me, using pop-up alerts to tell me when I've got e-mail, a Tweet, a Facebook update, a Skype call, or if there's breaking news. I couldn't do my job without a computer or the Internet.
So it interested me this week when I read an article in The Commercial Appeal that said the Mid-South is one of the worst areas in America when it comes to having Internet access. Nationwide, more than 75 percent of American homes have web access. In Mississippi, that figure is 55 percent, worst in the country. Arkansas is second-worst, with 63 percent. Tennessee is a marginally better 69 percent.
I don't think it's any accident that our education and income rankings are similarly poor. Electricity and radio and television came slower to rural and impoverished areas. The Internet is just following a historic pattern.
The educational and economic advantages of being wired into the grid are obvious. The key power of the Internet is in giving people unfiltered control over information. Those with Internet access can read anything they want with the touch of a mouse. They can research and fact-check what they hear on the news or on a talk show. They can ask almost any question and track down the answer in minutes. A world of knowledge is literally at their fingertips. But if knowledge is power, then lack of access to knowledge means less power.
As this week's cover story demonstrates, it's entirely possible to swim against the tide, to prosper when others around you are floundering. You just have to be smart, observant, able to see where opportunity lies. The Mid-South needs to do that on a macro level. As things are now, if economic and educational progress were an Olympic event, the Mid-South would be bringing up the rear. If we want to get competitive, to get on the podium, we simply need to get smarter — all of us, rich and poor.
And to do that, we need to get the right tool in the hands of more people. And that tool's not a forklift.