TCS Daily


Why Digital Dividers are Out of Step

By Sonia Arrison - April 19, 2002 12:00 AM

Despite a recent Department of Commerce (DOC) report showing that the time is right to dump digital-divide rhetoric, some activists still cling to the idea that there is a gap between technology "haves" and "have-nots" that requires government help.

A Benton Foundation policy brief last month argued, "The digital divide is wider than ever." It said, "Targeted [government] funding for community technology is essential to maintain national digital divide leadership."

This view is flawed for a number of reasons.

First, digital crusaders falsely assume that all people who do not use the Internet are helpless and cannot access technology. This is far from true. Many individuals choose not to use the Internet or even a computer because they have other priorities. Everyone knows someone, rich or poor, who chooses not to have voicemail, call waiting, or even a television.

Many of the Internet's so-called "have-nots" are really "want-nots." A hairdresser who spends her days clipping patrons' hair does not necessarily want to rush home and sit in front of a computer reading an email box full of Spam. More likely, she wants to have dinner and spend time with her family or friends - in person. But digital-divide hardliners refuse to acknowledge this choice.

Tellingly, many pushing the digital-divide agenda think that even if some people choose to remain offline, that it is the duty of society to force them online anyway. This is pure conceit and clashes with the principles of individual freedom upon which this country was founded. It is also at odds with the numbers.

More than half the population of the United States is now online, an increase of 26 million people in 13 months, and the number continues to grow. The DOC report also shows that Internet use is continuing to increase for everyone regardless of income, education, age, race, ethnicity, or gender. Rev. Jesse Jackson's suggestion that the digital-divide is a form of "classic apartheid" is clearly mistaken.

Some activists desperate to keep this issue alive have claimed that the digital divide has become "more acute" because the "gap" between rich and poor appears to have widened. But this claim is based on a snapshot in time and is a little disingenuous in light of the rate of online growth for the low-income population. In 1997, 44.5% of the wealthiest people were online compared to 9.2% of the poorest. In 2001, the number jumped to 78.9% for the wealthiest and 25% for the poorest.

Most people understand that these numbers are good news because the rate of growth is higher for low-income people (25%) than for high-income people (15%). If the rate of growth continues at this pace, it won't be long before the "gap" between rich and poor is negligible. That would constitute a problem for digital-divide activists.

While it's true that the entire population is not online, it's also true that many people value other activities over surfing the Net. Perhaps more Americans will flock online when the market provides more enticing reasons to do so. That's what Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard's director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research, indicated when it comes to Afro-Americans going on line.

According to Gates, to the extent that Afro-Americans are "cyber-segregated," it is self-imposed. He compares the problem to the recording industry in the 1920s, which struck a chord with blacks only when companies introduced jazz and blues records targeting the black market. If that was the case then, it's likely today that many haven't found what they're looking for when they go online as well.

Contrary to what some activists clearly hope, the Internet is not necessary for everyday life. In fact, some experts are now issuing warnings about the Net and its potential for addiction and ability to erode community. Technology never was a silver bullet for social and economic problems, and it certainly should not be used as an excuse to tax online access and products, especially when such taxes would hurt lower income people most.

It's clear from the DOC report that rhetoric over the digital divide is out of proportion. If the goal of the digital-divide movement is to help the disadvantaged, activists should be focusing their efforts on education, not on outfitting everyone with a computer and Internet Service Provider. Unless users can read and understand what they find on the Internet, all the computers and networks in the world won't be of much use.

Sonia Arrison is director of the Center for Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute. She can be reached at sarrison@pacificresearch.org
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