Needed: Massive Free Internet Access Locations

07Mar09

High unemployment means lots of people — many of whom are highly skilled and/or educated — with not much productive work to do, other than hunt for a job.  Jobhunting can be a fulltime endeavor, but at a certain point it becomes futile for many people, and they give up.  Then, running very short of money, they stop paying for the Internet connection, don’t buy replacement hardware to fix their PCs, and steadily become less valuable to themselves or to anyone else.  This is a waste of our biggest resource.

Now is a great time for the country to invest in creating large Internet access locations along the public library model, but on a more expansive level.  Cities, if not smaller towns, should take advantage of cheap real estate, cheap office furniture, cheap computers, and cheap labor to set up and staff 24-hour free Internet access locations near public bus routes, where people can at least use a computer at a table, as in the library, and could ideally have their own or semi-privately shared computer and desk workspace.

These centers may prove to be important in their own right, as a way of giving people something intelligent to do with their time — something that preserves self-respect as an educated human being, as distinct from e.g., the mechanical engineer I met the other day who was collecting aluminum cans in an alley in hopes of getting an extra buck.  These centers themselves would also generate a few jobs — for computer technicians and janitors, for instance. But the real payoff from these centers would be to maximize the nation’s productive capacity.  While we have lots of down time and cheap availability of trained individuals, it is an excellent time to start working through America’s enormous backlog of paperwork and unfinished tasks that desk workers are supposed to be able to tackle.

Not to deny the value of the infrastructure investments that Obama is making, but in this case there is no need to buy cranes and dump trucks and invest billions in a new highway.  Just give a person a desk and a computer and some incentive (a minimal financial incentive, a hope for a future job for the best performers, a free hot lunch, or possibly even just membership in a proud and dedicated volunteer group) to get to work.

The work in question is scattered broadly and deeply throughout this country.  We have judges with enormous backlogs of undecided cases, because there’s just not enough staffing to go through the papers and figure out the right solutions for those cases.  We have governmental agencies with endless piles of unfinished tasks, half-started projects that nobody has time to work up into more meaningful form, and investigations to complete.  This country is stacked to the ceiling with brilliant ideas that, supposedly, nobody has time to explore.

For very little money, you could basically turn existing governmental employees into supervisors, as individuals or at least as teams, that would oversee the computing and thinking efforts of large numbers of unemployed persons who need some meaningful work to do.  Don’t convert an accountant into a ditch-digger.  Leave that for the ditch-diggers.  Let the accountant do accounting, on a project where his/her skills may yield thousands of dollars in governmental cost savings or disaster prevention.  If someone is interested in history, why not let steer them toward investigative needs that could resolve missing-child cases or assist in a town’s efforts to digitize its property records?

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