This entry is part 20 of 39 in the series 40 years online

One of the Internet’s most ambitious and durable experiments in local community networking began in October 1993. That’s when the Blacksburg Electronic Village officially opened to the community of Blacksburg, Virginia, thanks to a partnership with Virginia Tech. This weekend we remember Virginia Tech in a much sadder light: as the site of an horrific 2007 shooting that left 32 people dead.

A thoughtful post by Andy Carvin, written just days after those events, reflected on how Blacksburg’s legendary connectedness failed to spare or even assist in this emergency:

If you had asked me 10 or 12 years ago to cite an example of what it means to bridge the digital divide, I’d bet that my unequivocal answer would have been Blacksburg, Virginia. The city of Blacksburg, in conjunction with Virginia Tech, was one of the first municipalities in the country to make a commitment to developing Internet infrastructure for the public good….So as I watched the events unfold on Monday as police realized the magnitude of the shooting that had taken place on the Virginia Tech campus, one of my first thoughts was, “Of all the campuses in the country, how could this happen here?”

Carvin noted that the university’s decision to update the community by email was subject to a common problem with emergency online communications: crashing overloaded servers. For this reason, he notes, many emergency communications strategies focus instead on low-bandwidth SMS (text) messaging. As Carvin wrote:

I have no doubt that universities that don’t have mandatory cell phone requirements or SMS alert systems are going to take the idea a lot more seriously now. But will K-12 schools? I’m skeptical. There is enormous opposition to allowing students to possess phones on campus, even though many parents argue they’re necessary for emergency communications. Some administrations will respond by saying the chances of a real emergency are slim, and students can’t be trusted to use them responsibly. Yes, an emergency on the scale of Virginia Tech are few and far between, but smaller-scale emergencies do happen from time to time. When more school shootings happen – and they will happen – it’s likely that more parents will be outraged by the fact their schools made it difficult or impossible to communicate with their children. And there will come a time when we will have no choice but to allow our students to carry communications devices. It may not be this month or even this year, but it will happen.

Carvin’s post feels all-too-prescient. In the wake of Japan’s earthquake, I’ve spoken with many Vancouver parents who share our anxieties about raising kids in an earthquake zone.  For the most part, our kids are in schools that have not received (or even been scheduled for) the seismic upgrades that are required to keep them safe. We’re gambling with our future in a very real and terrifying way. A plan for emergency communications is just one thread in a larger conversation about emergency preparedness for our kids — a conversation that has yet to take place.

Meanwhile I hear and read about all the parents who are worrying about their kids and cell phones in a whole other way: worrying about  how those phones are used to post embarrassing pictures on Facebook, worrying about how kids play with iPhones instead of Barbies, worrying about how kids text instead of talk. These are valid worries, and the moment that anyone shares the plan for how we’re keeping our kids safe from the big dangers — earthquakes, school shootings, climate change — they’ll go to the top of my priority list.

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