Another part of this is about how we recognize and acknowledge privilege in the world, the currency of that privilege and how it informs the way we inhabit space in the world.
I'm using the internet and the electronica as examples of ONE kind of privilege. There are many others.
Most people who know me well know that I have an ambivalent relationship with capitalism in general and with the way it plays out in the USA in particular. This ambivalence as been with me since childhood, since I first began to understand the existence of privilege.
Right now, we live in a world that relies heavily upon the internet. Those who do not have a way to get to the internet are left very far behind. It's why we've heard so much, during this pandemic, about trying to improve access to online learning for low-income kids. To varying degrees, school districts have succeeded or failed at improving that access, by bringing simple computer laptops to students without a computer at home; by negotiating for subsidized wifi access in places where such access is limited or nonexistent.
The internet is, in theory, "free," which means that you can surf the web and even have an email account for nothing.
But first you need a device. And then you need access to wifi.
The first part has actually been easier for me. Over the last couple of decades -- I got my first personal computer in fall 1998 -- it's been relatively easy for me to obtain a computer for free or really cheap, as friends around me have upgraded. The smartphone I use right now, an Apple iPhone 5, was a gift from a former student.
The second part has been trickier. Accessing wifi so I can get on the web has been more complicated because it's been more expensive. I home DSL or cable accunt is, to be frank, beyond my financial reach.
Since my sweetie and I are both freelancers, money is a feast or famine thing around here. Right now, with all of our gigs gone and no clarity about what the future holds for us, we are living hand to mouth like so many Americans. There's no "extra" money for anything.
Again, I'm not looking for pity here. This is true for SO MANY people right now and we are not special in this regard.
What's different for us is that, because of the cost involved in having our own wifi hookup, we've had an arrangement with a neighbor for the last few years, in which we piggyback on his signal and pay a greatly reduce monthly fee for the access.
Because he works from home, and at odd hours, he sometimes needs all the bandwidth in order to run an online seminar, and during that time we cannot do anything more than check our email. Surfing highly interactive sites, giving a Facebook Live concert, or being on a Zoom meeting ourselves all use up too much of the available bandwidth. So this is a compromise we've had to live with. Because our neighbor is kind and generous and allows us to pay what we can when we can, we accept the agreement and don't rock the boat.
This reduced access can be seen as a reduced privilege, one that's contingent on outside factors we have no control over. It can, and may, change at anytime.
We have a landline. I think we're the only household among our closest friends which still does. Part of the reason why is because, when my partner was working at her job as a freelance researcher and writer, she would often have to make long-distance calls on a secure phone line, and the landline with its "backup" protection plan was still far less expensive than switching to a cell phone plan. Right now, she's not working and the need for the landline isn't the same as it was; but it still costs less to keep the landline than to have both of us switch to cell phones for our regular phone plan.
Remember the iPhone 5 I mentioned before? It has no phone number attached. I don't use it as a phone. It's more like a pocket iPad that I can use to check email, make and share photos and very short videos. I've been able to use it to perform live concerts on Facebook, too, as long as I'm getting a strong wifi signal.
(I make arrangements in advance with my neighbor so he doesn't try to use the bandwidth for work when I'm giving a concert; but I can't give such concerts very often since it's his wifi and he's the reason we have any access at all. We don't want to abuse the privilege.)
So there it is. The privilege. Because, let's face it, access to the internet is still a privilege that not everyone has, even here in the USA. We are blessed to have reasonably "modern" laptops with which to conduct our freelance business. But in order to be able to communicate outside our home, we also need access to wifi. Before tha pandemic, it was easy enough for me to take my laptop to a coffeehouse and use their wifi while nursing a cup of coffee for a couple hours, and get some work done. With the pandemic, I can't really go anywhere and do that now. So my access is reduced, and more heavily depends on someone else's kindness and generosity.
I am wrestling with the connection between access and generosity.
Access shouldn't be based on generosity, not in a time and place where access can mean the difference between finding work that keeps us housed and not earning enough to pay the bills. The bank and utility companies don't care if I lack access, they want me to pay my bills on time. But with an ever-increasing cost of living and a decreasing window of opportunity for a real job with meaningful benefits and security, that access has become not less of a privilege, but more of one for a shocking number of Americans.
When I was a public school student, my middle school had ONE computer, hooked up to a massive mainframe at the district office across town; and only kids who kept their grades up and their behavior good were granted occasional access to that computer to play first-generation learning games on the computer.
When I entered college in 1981, I wrote my classes out on a card, and handed it to a Registrar clerk, who typed my choices into a terminal at her desk; at the other end of the office, a machine would spit out a punch card with tny rectangular holes, which I was instructed to bring to Registration day. Those who needed to get some assurance that they'd get the classes they chose got up very early and camped out in line at 5am, in order to be among the first to hand in their punch cards.
Today, it seems like the entire world is on the internet.
Computers are ubiquitous in public school classrooms today, and students take "keyboarding" (read: typing) classes as early as 3rd grade. Most kids have their own smartphones by middle school, maybe earlier; electronic connectivity is the new normal for our society. Lack the tools, lack the access, and you lack access to education, career possibilities and upward mobility in general.
I am privileged enough to have a computer, and wifi access. This privilege has afford me something of a career as a touring artist; after all, without the internet, I wouldn't be able to get my music out there to anyone beyond where I live as quickly and easily as I have, and I wouldn't have booked all these out-of-town gigs that I've been blessed to do.
On the other hand, I do not have enough access to reliable wifi that I can simply give cncerts from home whenever I feel like it. I don't have enough access to the most up-to-date technology that I can record high-quality videos from home and send them out into the world. I have what I have, which is why my video offerings tend to look and feel reough-hews.
I'm okay with that. It doesn't bother me. I'm a songwriter and teacher, not a theater producer or director.
I believe that my songs have enough strength on their own to grab someone's attention and imagination.
I'm not a terribly competitive person by nature, so I don't really see myself as being in competition with other artists, at least not to the extent that movers and shakers in the music business would have me believe.
But every now and then, something happens where, because of my lack of access in a given moment, I miss out on the chance to make music with others in a lovely way. Because I don't live with a cell phone attached to my hip all day, I miss out on communications from friends who do. Because I don't have the level of wifi access most of my musician friends have, I miss out on opportunities to do things spontaneously online.
If I were younger, I think it might bother me more. I think if I were younger and far more worried about trying to make a big break in the music business, it would bother me a whole LOT more.
But I'm not at that place in my life now. and since I didn't grow up as a digital native, a great deal of my time is still spent away from screens. I don't watch a ton of TV, and I don't spend all or even most of my days connected to the internet. If that's where so many of my friends are, oh well. I will miss out. But I don't feel like I am missing out. BEcause what am I missing out ON? And what would my presence there mean if I cannot participate and contribute online in that moment, if I could only watch quietly because I have limited bandwidth to work with?
The fact is that, while I will still make music and write songs, I will probably have limited bandwidth here for awhile yet. And more importantly, I've never been the kind of person who is willing to work my life away in order to have things that I won't have time or energy to really utilize.
Access is really about what I want access to, and how, and why.
I'm old enough to be able to choose my levels and frequency of access without having it make a huge difference on my future. Younger people aren't so fortunate. The groundwork for their reality was laid before they were old enough to have agency about their life choices, and as a result, so many younger people find themselves living virtually whether they like it or not, whether they even realize it or not.
I don't feel terribly sorry to miss out on things, especially opportunities that come with having greater electronic access. I live in the here and now. I rejoice in making dinner with my sweetie. I am grateful for the visit on the lawn with my sister, sitting spaced apart while we sample blueberries off the bush. I feel gloriously free with every pedal stroke on my bicycle. I won't be a star, because I don't have and cannot afford tools required for that goal. But that's okay. And if I don't glean any other lesson from this crazy time than learning to be content, to nurture contentment in my here and now, than I'm learning that very good lesson over and over again, each new day.