Digital Apartheid?

by Howard Fienberg
July 15, 2002

Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) has declared the "digital divide" to be "one of the single most important issues that will determine the destiny of the American people" and the Rev. Jesse Jackson has called it a "classic form of apartheid." Yet in May, following the release of the Commerce Department study A Nation Online, the Bush administration proposed eliminating two federal programs aimed at alleviating that divide because they no longer appeared necessary. Dozens of interest groups expressed outrage that, just as progress was being made, the government was turning its back on the problem. But what exactly is the digital divide and are these programs actually helping to address it?


The term "digital divide" was first coined in "Falling Through the Net," a 1998 Commerce Department study, to describe the gaps in computer ownership and usage and Internet usage among various racial/ethnic/income groups. Then and now, higher-income earners, Whites and Asian-Americans are more likely to use computers and the Internet than lower-income earners and Blacks and Hispanics.


So it seems that there is still a need for the threatened programs. The Department of Education's Community Technology Centers Program helps finance computer activity centers for youth and adult education and the Commerce Department's Technology Opportunities Program (TOP) provides money and services to "organizations that need a technology boost," according to The New York Times. But while the former seems tailored to address the digital divide, the latter does not. TOP is aimed at organizations, not individuals. That is not to say it is worthless. Several rural health services have taken advantage of the program for videoconferencing with isolated out-patients. The Times also highlighted a recipient called America's Second Harvest, a nationwide network of food banks, which uses the technology to track its donations and affiliates' needs (and better organize federal lobbying efforts). But it does indicate that some federal programs have strayed pretty far from the intended meaning of the digital divide.


Into the program's defense last week came a report from the Digital Empowerment Campaign -- a coalition of groups ranging from the AFL-CIO and the NAACP to the American Library Association. Activist Phil Shapiro argued to the New York Times that progress would be lost if government financing ended. "If you water a plant and then decide to stop watering it," Mr. Shapiro said, "the result is the same as if you never watered it in the first place." However, these are not the only two programs supposedly dedicated to alleviating the digital divide; a lot of other folks are watering the plants as well. Many corporations donate computers to their employees and to local schools and organizations. Many charities work to bring computers and the Internet to the masses. Most schools and libraries provide access. National Center for Education Statistics data from 2000 indicated that 98 percent of schools had Internet access and 77 percent of classrooms were wired as well. Last fall, local government even got into the act. Houston mayor Lee Brown, declaring that access "must be a right and not a privilege," started the SimHouston project, designed to provide every citizen with Internet access.


And yet, the Digital Empowerment Campaign still worries that "workers in low-skill jobs are not online because they don't use the tools at work and can't afford them at home." Hard as it may seem for the Campaign to believe, many jobs and businesses have absolutely no need for a computer. Shockingly, many ordinary people have also never wanted or needed a computer or the Internet. This is best illustrated in the dreaded "age gap": Pew surveys of Internet use have found that, while nearly 80 percent of people between the ages of 18-29 use it, barely 15 percent of the 65+ crowd are users. Many more people of varying ages can be classified as "Internet dropouts" -- people who once used the Internet at home, but no longer do. Some of them stopped because they got to use it at work or school, and that was enough. A minority decided it was too expensive to maintain. But most simply became disillusioned or lost interest. As much as the Internet bustles with useful and important information, it is equally rife with misinformation, spam and smut. As many educators and schools have discovered, the un- or under-educated do not seem to learn much from it that is helpful.


But if all Americans wanted to be computer/Internet users, could they afford it? A grown adult, struggling to make ends meet, might still be able to afford a computer and Internet connection, if he or she wanted to do so. One of the great ironies of America is that poverty here relative to developing nations is on an entirely different scale. Items that used to be considered luxuries are now in most every home: telephones in 93 percent of homes; color TVs in all but 2 or 3 percent; three quarters of homes have VCRs; about two-thirds have air conditioning; and some seventy percent have cars. Meanwhile, in developing countries, the World Health Organization has reported that over a billion people have no access to clean water.


A reasonably-powerful computer can be had for a few hundred dollars -- and a used one for even less. Internet access at home -- since the freebie-dot-com-bomb -- is rarely free, but can be had for a handful of dollars a month. Faster connections are not out of reach: by early last year, 11 percent of homes had a high-speed broadband connection.


But that does not impress the Campaign. It says that home access opens up the "true Internet benefits" and that education programs convince people to "bring the technology home." Donna L. Hoffman, a professor of marketing and e-commerce at Vanderbilt University, told the Times that what is needed is "the exposure that makes you go home and say, 'We've got to get one of those.' "


So marketing is the issue? Perhaps we should stop to consider to what benefit this marketing expert is pitching the digital divide programs. Are they for disadvantaged citizens missing out on the benefits of the digital age? Or are they just to fill the coffers of hardware, software and telecommunications corporations?

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