People Experiencing Hardship Should Be Allowed to Use Technology Without Your Judgmental Bullshit

A homeless war veteran speaks on a phone at a shelter in Massachusetts
Photo: AP

Roughly 553,000 Americans are currently experiencing homelessness, according to the latest figures available from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But that doesn’t mean those people should be judged for owning technology like laptops and smartphones, no matter what various assholes have to say on the subject.

Conservative commentator and author Tom Nichols posted a tweet this week that managed to cross the line that separates the merely insensitive from the real assholes.

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Nichols tweeted a photo from the Los Angeles Times that seemed to show a family living out of their car. Nichols was particularly upset that the baby seemed to have a “laptop” in its lap, despite the fact that it was obviously a small video player. But even if it had been a laptop, what’s wrong with that? Nothing. Unless you’re Tom Nichols, laptop police for poor people.

Screenshot: Twitter

The added element of Nichols pointing out that the “wife,” who wasn’t pictured and may not exist, happened to be pregnant was especially weird. It’s not clear where Nichols got that information because the original L.A. Times story simply mentions a man and his 19-month-old daughter who are currently living in their car—a heartbreaking story, and not one to point out with some smarmy judgment.

You’ve probably heard or seen people complain about the same thing that Nichols is arguing over the past two decades: Why, they ask, should poor people have smartphones or other gadgets?

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The most obvious answer, among many possible answers, is that gadgets are ridiculously cheap these days. Owning a $300 smartphone or a $500 laptop (or even a $1,000 laptop) doesn’t make you rich. And it has no bearing on whether you’re able to afford a home. The average rent in the U.S. is currently $1,405 per month. And even if you have the cash to pay for a cheap apartment, there are plenty of other issues that keep people from having access to proper shelter, like low rental inventory. San Jose, for example, has a vacancy rate of 4.26 percent, making it difficult for even those with plenty of money to find a place to live.

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One study, published in 2017, found that 94 percent of homeless adults who were moving into temporary housing in the U.S. had a mobile phone of some kind. Based on the type of sample the study looked at, that’s probably higher than the general population of people experiencing homelessness, but it provides some context. Most homeless people have a mobile phone and that’s a very good thing. Because having a phone in 2019 is a link to the world. Phones can do so much these days, and are absolutely vital if you’re trying to do anything that used to be available in newspapers—from learning the latest news to literally finding a fucking home.

Nichols issued a pseudo non-apology apology for his “heartless take” on Twitter, but he still didn’t seem to understand the problem with his attitude.

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“I still don’t think non-judgementalism is the answer - we’ve tried that - but I don’t why she’s pregnant and they’re in a car. Neither do you. Wish there was more on it,” Nichols tweeted.

What did Nichols mean by non-judgementalism? And even more curiously, what did he mean by “we’ve tried that”? Your guess is as good as mine.

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It’s not just technology like laptops or smartphones that Americans can be extremely judgmental about. People who are relatively well off, and even those who are rich, sometimes point out that low-income Americans have other appliances that aren’t abundant in the poorest regions of the world. Back in 2011, Fox News even did a segment pointing out that 82 percent of poor families in America have a microwave. And that 99 percent of poor families have a refrigerator. Seriously, Fox News anchors on multi-million dollar contracts did that as an entire segment about how grateful poor people should be.

Believe it or not, Nichols actually wrote a book called The Death of Expertise. Chapter four of his book is titled “Let Me Google That For You: How Unlimited Information is Making Us Dumber.” Seriously.

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One fairly humorous quote from a sea of never-ending bullshit in his book:

The most obvious problem is that the freedom to post anything online floods the public square with bad information and half-baked thinking. The Internet lets a billion flowers bloom, and most of them stink, including everything from the idle thoughts of random bloggers and the conspiracy theories of cranks all the way to the sophisticated campaigns of disinformation conducted by groups and governments. Some of the information on the Internet is wrong because of sloppiness, some of it is wrong because well-meaning people just don’t know any better, and some of it is wrong because it was put there out of greed or even sheer malice. The medium itself, without comment or editorial intervention, displays it all with equal speed. The Internet is a vessel, not a referee.

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Another particularly great passage:

Accessing the Internet can actually make people dumber than if they had never engaged a subject at all. The very act of searching for information makes people think they’ve learned something, when in fact they’re more likely to be immersed in yet more data they do not understand. This happens because after enough time surfing, people no longer can distinguish between things that may have flashed before their eyes and things they actually know.

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It’s great that Nichols apologized for his original tweet, but he still doesn’t understand where he went wrong. Meanwhile, your parents and grandparents are reading his nonsense, because the guy regularly gets access to huge publishing platforms like The Atlantic and teaches at the Harvard Extension School.

Maybe take a bit of advice from your own book, Mr. Nichols. Log off before you spread more “bad information and half-baked thinking.” Either that or just stop being an asshole.

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About the author

Matt Novak

Matt Novak is the editor of Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog