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Opinion: Memories of Underdevelopment

Poli Psy


Published October 13, 2010 at 6:26 a.m.


I’m not going to wax hypocritical about the Good Old Days out here in the hinterlands, beyond the reach of reliable cell and broadband coverage.

Only a few years ago, our dial-up connection frequently threw in the towel in the middle of a download. A satellite dish didn’t work in rain or snow.

Verizon refused to hook up DSL because our house was too far from a switching station to guarantee high-quality service. FairPoint, less concerned about high-quality service, connected us.

Now I can “chat” daily with a friend in England, buy a used bicycle from Florida — and, not least, earn a living far from my employers.

I won’t lie about my feelings. That is to say, hallelujah!

However. I work more and have to work faster, and since I’m perpetually available, I am expected to respond to email immediately, at any time. Meanwhile, the phone doesn’t ring, and that makes me lonely. And when I take a bike ride, I pack a cellphone. I rarely leave it all behind.

As Vermont prepares to connect the “last mile” to broadband, you don’t hear a “however” anywhere. The Federal Communications Commission promises more efficient local government through “cloud computing,” extended distance learning and enhanced telemedicine. Every political candidate touts more and better jobs through technology.

“Done properly, these projects will connect virtually all of Vermont’s homes, schools, hospitals and small businesses with each other and the world,” writes Essex-Orleans County Senator Vince Illuzzi in the Burlington Free Press. “It will bring us roaring into the 21st century and could be a model for all of rural America.

“Vermonters from every walk of life understand the negative consequences caused by the lack of universal, high-quality, affordable broadband service in our state.”

He doesn’t mention any negative — or equivocal — consequences, as if small towns had nothing to lose by joining the global village.

As it happens, I’ve been in the middle of a dispute over communications technology that has me feeling, well, equivocal, on the subject. Seven years ago, a beeper salesman and cell-tower builder named Karl Rinker applied to the Hardwick Zoning Board of Adjustment to build a 199.5-foot telecommunications tower in a pasture abutting an organic farm and hundreds of acres of conserved land on Bridgman Hill, where I live.

Concerned about spoiling this rare place and endangering the health of neighbors and their livestock — but understanding the desire for cell service — a small group of local residents has fought to give Rinker what the ZBA granted: a 100-foot tower. Propagation studies show that a structure that height would work as well as one twice its size; in fact, a 57-foot “whip” is currently providing coverage to most of the town.

Most people in Hardwick believe cellphones will improve life in the town they love. But here’s the sad irony: The prospect of a spiffy, high-tech Hardwick has turned them against lower-tech Hardwick. As with all consumer products, the Next Big Thing has rendered the old thing despicable.

At the packed zoning board and Act 250 hearings, witness after witness portrayed Hardwick as a desert and Rinker as Moses, leading us to the Promised Land.

Charles Sartelle, whose family has lived in town for generations, predicted that his would be the last. “My children want to be part of the 21st century, and they cannot achieve that here,” he said. He was sure they’d move somewhere else to enjoy the benefits of modernity.

David Shepard, whose father is leasing his land to Rinker, testified that his wife had a “recent disability” and needed a cellphone to contact him in case of emergency. Until such service was available, she’d be forced to stay at home.

Susan Cross, who worked on the town ambulance for 10 years, talked about the cell-less dead spots between Hardwick and Copley Hospital in Morrisville. She did not say if any patient had been harmed as a result of these sputterings-out, but “even if only one life is saved by the tower,” she asserted, “it’s worth it.”

Cellphones would preserve families, liberate disabled women and save lives! In the face of these unassailable aims, those who pled for animal health or natural beauty were alarmists and Luddites.

The town had been redefined as a has-been; now it was a socially divided has-been. Sandy Howard, the tower’s most impassioned proponent, circulated ad hominem attacks on board members. “Take Back Hardwick” signs sprang up, signaling to flatlanders and bourgeois aesthetes to stop pushing their values on “real Vermonters.” And “real Vermonters” were no longer the conservers of the old, good-enough ways. They had become the champions of “progress.”

Ask people if they want economic development, and they will almost always say yes. But the inconvenient truth is that much of what has kept Vermont’s economy — especially its tourist industry — healthy is underdevelopment: the endurance of that last sparsely populated mile.

Despite its reputation as the world capital of sustainable agriculture, Hardwick remains far from any airport and short on jobs; Main Street’s landlords rarely fill all the storefronts at the same time. You still can’t build a spec house here for less than the price of its potential sale, and that has kept development to a pace of one owner-built home at a time.

Republicans use all this as evidence of the need for streamlined building permits, computers in every classroom and a cell tower on every hill. Like Sartelle, politicians harp on an alleged outflow of young, educated and higher-income Vermonters. In reality, Vermont is among the country’s best-educated states, and IRS statistics show that the people moving into the state are richer than those moving out.

That’s economic development — also known as gentrification. And, as anyone who’s lived through it can attest, gentrification means more services and less crime, but also unaffordable housing and lots of restaurants where you can’t afford to eat and don’t feel welcome. Gentrification is great if you want to sell your house and move.

Low or slowly changing property values, on the other hand, stabilize communities. Family farmers aren’t tempted to subdivide their land. A young family can buy a house not far from Grandma’s and attend the church they grew up in.

So, what about the claims for broadband?

Efficient local government? I believe this means laying off “redundant” workers in the town offices — not just steady taxpayers but the people through whom citizens connect to government and in whom the town’s fiscal and political history resides. Distance learning? Students schooled on screen rather than face to face (and teachers fired).

Telemedicine? It’s hard to argue with doctors being able to access records of medical tests or treatments done elsewhere. Still, I wonder if a computer in the office will distract my country doc from his excellent listening; whether he’ll grow less conservative about fancy tests and, as a result, lose the keenness of his diagnostic skills. It’s no accident these virtues developed in a clinic 60 miles from the nearest high-tech medical center. (I might add that forgoing those tests hasn’t hurt my health — and it sure doesn’t hurt the public health care bill.)

Will broadband create good jobs?

Nobody knows. “We don’t know whether the wage rates go up or down just because broadband is available,” Northwestern University economist Shane Greenstein told National Public Radio. “We don’t know if the exit of businesses from rural areas increases or decreases when you have broadband. We don’t know whether you get growth. So, though we see examples, we don’t know whether those stories generalize.”

In fact, broadband could eliminate some jobs. In an article on Daily Yonder, a news website published by the Center for Rural Strategies, Sharon Strover and Nick Muntean pointed out that New Deal rural electrification brought labor-saving innovations to farming — but it also saved farmers from hiring laborers, who had to migrate to the cities.

“The only unqualified winners were those national manufacturers of electrical equipment and appliances, such as General Electric and Westinghouse, whose profits were generally not returned to the localities in which they had been generated,” wrote Strover and Muntean, respectively, the director of the University of Texas Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute and a PhD student at the school.

How might universal cell and broadband coverage change my town? Will teenagers who now joke and talk walking down the hill from school be texting other people? Will the boxing club empty and the porch-sitters disappear, as we become tangled in the World Wide Web?

When nobody sends letters, will our post office close? When a driver slides off the road, will others pass her by, assuming she’s got a cellphone to call for help?

Broadband will bring development, no doubt — and with it, telecommuting, cross-country-skiing Boston stockbrokers and, yes, telecommuting, cross-country-skiing New York writers like me. If Sandy Howard manages to Take Back Hardwick, she may lose the Hardwick she wants to save.

What about rural life is worth saving? What can we give up? As I said, my feelings are equivocal. But I know this: Just as SimCity has nothing on the real city, I’d rather have farms than Farmville.