Friday, July 18, 2008

Bringing Greene County on line

Here's a fairly heartening story, reported by NPR:

Five years ago, the US government stopped subsidizing tobacco farming. At the time, Greene County, North Carolina was more dependent on tobacco than all but one county in the US. Faced with disaster, the county government made what seemed like a most improbable choice for a place with little money and big problems coming down the road. Instead of trying to attract a factory to a work force with few skills outside tobacco farming, they would bring in broadband and increase internet coverage from practically nothing to the entire county. They would also supply laptops to all high school students and make other educational reforms not detailed in the story.

The results were dramatic: many more students applied to and attended college, teen pregnancies fell, business improved and instead of falling off the map, the county was able, in the words of county government worker Misty Chase, to "jump over the industrial age and move straight into the technology age." On a less tangible level, the kids had iTunes and folks were able to email their relatives outside the county. No one is claiming that the internet and laptops were the only factor in the turnaround, but it's clear it wouldn't have happened without them.

In a world of hype about the net and the web changing everything, it's easy to be skeptical of such claims and easy to forget that, just as with rural electrification and universal phone service, technology really can make a difference.

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