About a decade ago, I spent several days spread during a couple of months in volunteer work at an organization in Portland called Free Geek. The work that’s done in that industrial district building is about as elegant as the name is awkward.

I was working in a team with a half-dozen other people building computers from salvaged parts. It wasn’t just altruism; I had incentives. First, I was learning how to build a computer, which was an enlightening and useful exercise for almost anyone in this era. Second, after having helped build five computers from old parts, I got to keep the sixth, at no charge.

None of this was primary to the purpose behind Free Geek. The main thrust of the work done there was to get computers in the hands of people who need them. The organization takes in massive amounts of old computers, equipment and supplies donated by individuals, businesses and others around town. They turn them into useful machines that are either sold at low price (the public can buy, and there are some great deals) or in many cases simply given away to people and (usually nonprofit or educational) organizations that need them. (The software is Linux, which costs nothing to use and allows people to do nearly everything they can with more expensive systems.)

This is an attempt to overcome the “digital divide,” the gap between people who have easy access to the online world and computing capabilities, and those who don’t. That’s been a significant driver in the splits in our society for a generation, but it has become especially important in a time of pandemic shutdown, when digital communications often are the only way many of us can keep in touch with each other. There are limitations even with equipment in hand: If you live in a rural area with poor or no broadband capability, that’s a problem. But if more people in those areas obtain the equipment, broadband providers are more likely to improve their service. That’s a significant split between communities of people in Idaho.

Several organizations around the country have developed over the last decades to try to get more digital equipment — computers, smartphones and more — into more hands. Some are governmental, such as California’s recent program to get 70,000 laptops into the hands of students. Others are private or nonprofit; Free Geek, in a recent publication, cited the Texas group, “Restore Education, a nonprofit that helps low-income, at-risk youth and adults prepare for college and a career, (which) handed out 40 refurbished laptops, virtual education materials and gift cards.”

Idaho has this kind of initiative, too, through the business-backed group Idaho Business for Education. Its website notes that, “In conjunction with the Idaho Community Foundation, we have set up a fund where anyone can donate whatever they can to help us bring connectivity to the students of Idaho.”

And there’s more. Its president, Rod Gramer (disclosure: He’s an old friend and colleague), said in an email that, “We’ve collected over 1,100 computers in about 2½ weeks. By the end of this week we should have finished distributing nearly 1,000 of those to the school districts. The digital divide is a huge challenge, but we are chipping away at it.”

The usefulness of this is especially obvious right now, when so much of what we do that was direct and interpersonal — from education to medical consultation to many kinds of work to family connections — has now been relegated to the digital.

But if we use this time to expand our capabilities, many people can come out of what we’re going through with more options.

Stapilus is a former Idaho newspaper reporter and editor who blogs at www.ridenbaugh.com. His email address is stapilus@ridenbaugh.com.

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