The latest progressive initiative to reduce inequality across New York City is rolling out in the form of massive, monolithic Internet kiosks. These ten-foot metal slabs—installed where phone booths used to be—are the face of LinkNYC, a Google-dominated communication network offering “free super-fast Wi-Fi” to New Yorkers.
Touted as a means of bridging the mythical “digital divide” that prevents poor people from accessing the Web, LinkNYC will eventually install more than 10,000 kiosks across the city. Each unit features a small tablet from which one can make free phone calls or access an Internet browser, and two USB ports for charging cell phones. The unsightly kiosks function as powerful Wi-Fi antennas, allowing anyone standing nearby to join the LinkNYC broadband network. Each slab also has two large advertising screens, the revenue from which will pay for the system, and supposedly generate $40 million for the city annually.
LinkNYC was promoted and coordinated by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s former chief counsel Maya Wiley, who articulated the establishment of LinkNYC in terms of rectifying racial inequity: “With this hotspot, this city takes an important step toward a fairer distribution of broadband service. We know that low income New Yorkers, particularly African American and Latino residents, rely on their smartphones to get online. And now New Yorkers can reduce some of that broadband bill.”
One has to ask, however, exactly how it is that surfing the Internet makes things “fairer?” In order to access the LinkNYC Wi-Fi network, New Yorkers with cellphones must stand on the sidewalk: the signal isn’t designed to reach into most homes. The so-called “digital divide” supposedly plaguing New York’s poor is often pitched as an impediment to job searches and an obstacle to obtaining government information such as school enrollment forms. How does free sidewalk Wi-Fi close this allegedly pernicious gap? Are we to believe that low income New Yorkers are going to leave their homes and walk the streets in order to work on their online resumes, or to file their taxes through their smartphones?
In fact, as the Village Voice has reported, LinkNYC’s business model is built around capturing personal consumer data from people walking down the street. The free Wi-Fi is merely some rather stodgy bait that the de Blasio administration has swallowed whole.
Your reporter has been observing from a sociological perspective the actual—as opposed to the theoretical—use of the LinkNYC apparatus. The accompanying photos indicate that the new street furniture has quickly been adapted to the needs of the lowest common denominator of sidewalk traffic. Basically, the kiosks have become semi-permanent command-and-control stations for the city’s burgeoning homeless population, and an annoyance to residents, businesses, and passersby. City councilmember Corey Johnson, who represents the West Village, Chelsea, and Hell’s Kitchen, says that he wasn’t consulted about the installation of the system, but that his office “is getting so many complaints, tons of complains about these things” from his constituents, some of whom report “people watching porn” on the devices.
As is typical of the progressive mayor, the actual utility of the kiosks is secondary to the opportunity to get some press and appear equitable through the provision of something—anything!—free to his political base. Now, New Yorkers are stuck with ugly ten-foot digital advertising stands, where panhandlers can linger and watch YouTube videos, and which surreptitiously record all of our comings and goings.
Top Photo by nycmayorsoffice/Flickr