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Digital Divide

Job-hunting without a computer? It's not as crazy as it sounds.

By Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

WHEN FRIENDS FROM urban California planned to visit me in rural Britain, I researched telephone numbers and addresses for tourist information around the country. My friends would accept them politely, but often said they'd "just go on the web."

In the United Kingdom, there's no such illusion that the Internet will answer all questions. City and transport websites may exist, but they're often spare, rarely updated and sometimes wrong. Individuals use them but not as intensely as they do here. Where did the assumption of Internet accessibility and infallibility spring from? I wondered.

Now I'm here, and I see.

Looking for work without a computer has kicked me onto the other side of the digital divide. When I first arrived in Santa Cruz in October, I used the computers at the public library, as I'd done in Britain, to look at job-search and company sites. Then, I'd post my résumé by U.S. mail. And I waited.

From most, I heard nothing. I followed up with telephone calls. I spoke with a Human Resource person who admitted that my paper application, sent from Britain before the anthrax scare, would have ended up on his desk before being filed in the wastepaper basket. Would I mind emailing it?

More phone calls later, I understood that electronic application was the norm. Could I send email from the Scotts Valley branch of Santa Cruz Public Libraries? Yes, but only if I had an email address. Where could I get an email address? Blank looks from several librarians. "Make a friend," one said, jokingly. Another suggested Coffeetopia. I've since learned that I could have gotten one at the library.

I drove to Coffeetopia, which charged 10 cents per minute. Fifteen minutes after sitting at a terminal near its bank vault inside door, I had my ticket into the inner sanctum of electronic existence.

Computers are tools. Useful ones, I think. They are meant to serve people. When we become a slave to the tool, the machine becomes more valuable than the person. Résumé not on the computer? Sorry, you don't exist.

[line]

A Guide for the Wireless: Where to find Internet access.

[line]

Flipping to Floppies

I've since committed my résumé to a floppy disk. I'd typed the previous one on my electric typewriter with its larger font. For an even different look, try using a manual. Sean McCullough once had 16 manual typewriters, seven of which were on display in his Cafe Karina on Front Street.

"People would write things for a big box, an intellectual offering," said McCullough, whose cafe closed in 1996. He is now theater manager at Cabrillo College. "People often said they enjoyed a place where they could write. Some wrote poetry. Every once in a while, people had to write applications."

Composing on a manual plugs into a different part of the brain than a word processor.

"There's nothing like the feel of a typewriter," McCullough said. "You have to think out the entire process and create in a linear way from beginning to end and on through revisions. People said they wrote different things when writing on a typewriter.

"Kids who had grown up using computers said, 'What's this? Where's the plug?' It was fun to watch their bafflement and their delight."

What's happening with kids, anyway? I called San Lorenzo Unified Schools in Felton where the receptionist gave me the name of the technology coordinator. "Can you email him? It's better if you email him." Yet, John Tracy and I managed to talk on the phone minutes later.

"How do you survive?" said Tracy, who is the co-host of KUSP's GeekSpeak program.

Tracy said there are 1,300 computers at nine sites in the school district of about 4,000 students. Besides using them for typing and research, students and parents can access a program from home called PowerSchool that allows them to check on attendance, grades and homework assignments. In a "highly informal" poll in which teachers asked students to raise their hands if they had a computer at home, 70 percent to 100 percent did at the junior high and high school level.

I might have raised my hand too.

You've Got Mail--Somewhere

What to do if you're a kid--or an adult--who doesn't have a computer at home? The Watsonville Public Library and nine of the 10 branches of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries offer free use of computer programs to members for a limited time, usually 30 or 60 minutes. Sign-up policies differ as do programs.

I caught up with Mike Martin, an Oracle developer, before he strode onto Church Street after using one of the eight online computers at the Central branch in Santa Cruz.

"On my days off, I just come to the library and check my mail," said Martin, 50, who owns a laptop and lives on his sailboat at Moss Landing.

Inside the Central branch, Shaun Gunsolus, 30, seemed to be in the midst of a scramble for the next machine.

"I just have an email account," said Gunsolus, who was traveling to San Diego, his ceramic mug attached to his person and dangling from his side. "I've had a computer. I gave it away. Materialism breeds corruption of the mind and the life."

Then, under the bemused look of a waiting man in a suit, he rushed to take his turn at a machine.

"It gets tense," admitted Kristen Wilson, library assistant in youth services at the Scotts Valley branch, where she said 50 to 60 members use its eight computers each day. "I think it's because they're waiting for that email. It's a major form of communication."

There are other reasons for using computers at libraries.

"There are people who don't have them at home, and there are people who do," said Deborah Barrow, director of the Watsonville Public Library. "Some use them because our Internet access is faster. Some don't have access at home, even though they have a computer."

Barbara Gail Snider, manager at Central, said "everybody" uses its online computers and nine older models, which have 12 databases, including sheet music collected by the branch, and electronic books. Last month, Snider said, 2,102 people logged onto the Internet. She hopes to increase the number of computers with Internet access--"but not email"--in as soon as two months, barring technical glitches and breakdowns.

Interestingly, a good number of the computers in libraries around Santa Cruz County come from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in Seattle, Washington. Many are used by children. At Watsonville Public Library, there are eight Gates computers out of a total of 20.

The Gates Foundation didn't return my calls by deadline. A helpful librarian gave me the foundation's website address. But, for all I know, Gates may have responded by email.

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From the January 16-23, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.




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