Is There Really a Digital Divide in America?by Stephen Pizzo
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Al Gore has been running around the country lately wringing his hands about what he sees as a growing digital divide in America. The latest have-nots, according to Gore, are the unwired American underclass, particularly minorities. But wait -- aren't Asians classified as a minority? Asians are among the most wired folks in the US. And -- wait again -- blacks and Hispanics are getting wired to the Net at a rate that now outpaces whites. What's going on here? With a roaring economy, record low unemployment rates, and the success of welfare reform, are the Democrats just trying to create an issue they think will play well with their traditional base? Some people think so.
Adam Clayton Powell III is more than a bit suspicious about all this and has written a series of articles and editorials recently on the subject. If you're over forty, the name may jar memories, as it did for me. His father was New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who served from 1945 to 1970, a lonely and dangerous period for black elected officials. When Powell's father arrived in the nation's capitol to take his seat in Congress, he was faced with overt racist rules that barred blacks from using many of the capitol facilities. Powell ignored these rules -- well, he didn't just ignore them, he violated them with gusto, bringing as many black constituents as he could to Washington to dine with him at the House restaurant and to go anywhere else in their capitol that he felt citizens had a right to be. So, as this man's son, Adam Clayton Powell III brings more than just academic curiosity to bear on this topic. Besides his family credentials, Powell is also a techie. He is vice-president of technology and programs at the Freedom Forum, a Washington think tank. Previously, he was director of technology studies for the Freedom Forum's media program at Columbia University.
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Interview at a glance:
Powell says costs of technology have fallen to affordable levels for most already:
"The falling price of computer power and the falling price of Internet access (down to zero if you go through AltaVista or any number of other ISPs now) has really taken care of the economic argument. Computers by the end of this year will be approximately the same price as television sets, if not lower, and access to the Internet is already cheaper than access to cable television, so the economic barrier really isn't there. And what you're left with is something that may be more difficult to address, and that is the barrier by education."
Powell says that computer/Internet access in schools is now nearly universal:
"By January of this year we had 95 percent of all U.S. schools wired, and we have most classrooms wired. That's remarkable -- that's a remarkable achievement. And so in effect we've had the equivalent of the Rural Electrification Program take place. The real issue now is, "All right, you have the wires coming into the classroom, and you have computers" -- obviously there's a disparity between affluent school districts and poor school districts, but at least you have the service there, and hardware which -- certainly by 1993 standards -- is pretty sophisticated. The issue now is, "What do we really do? What are the applications that we want in schools?" And I think that's a more difficult subject than running cable and putting in hardware."
Powell claims that some in Washington act on mind-set rather than facts:
"The latest Forrester reports, the Arthur Andersen study, the Nielsen materials from December and January -- all showed, as you point out, that 74% or higher of Asian-American households are online, which is higher than cable television, that Hispanics have gone ahead of whites in the U.S. by anywhere from 4 to 7 percentage points, depending on which survey you cite ... And what Larry Irving (former Clinton Secretary of Commerce) said -- it's still available on our site, you can listen to his words; he said, "I don't believe in any of these surveys," that the digital divide is a "self-evident phenomenon." I think that is in part because many, if not most, of the places that he visits are places that are just coming online, but also human nature to some extent has us as prisoners of our past, and when the past is changed -- when something like the Internet is changing so rapidly, if you lock your perception into 1998, which is the date which the federal government keeps citing, that's like data of 30, 40 years ago for television. It's moving that quickly."
Powell on not creating a new federal virtual entitlement program:
"These all start from goals which are laudable, or sound laudable, such as there are X thousand people who have difficulty seeing or Y number who have difficulty hearing; let's make all the Web sites available to them. But as you start to walk through what's involved, you're saying, well, wait a minute -- this means that we're going to mandate that every site have -- that you can't post text unless there's a way of having oral information. You can't use colors to show, say, red for losses or blue for links for Web sites, unless there is an additional way of explaining that information. So suddenly you're into a very large enterprise, larger than most policy-makers, I think, planned when they started down this road."
Powell on the natural progression of technology adoption:
There's the famous cartoon from The New Yorker of a man walking up to a shop counter, and the caption is "I want some new gadgets -- my old gadgets are getting old." That's the classic early adopter: somebody who can spend $2000 for that first VCR, somebody who will today go to an appliance store and buy a digital TV set, high-definition TV set. That's always where it starts, and if a technology takes off, it can take 20, 30, 40 years to reach 50 percent of the United States. Well, if you date this medium from the Web, or at least the general adoption of the Web, which was basically 90, 93, 94, and on, that's pretty fast. You've reached 50 percent of the United States in six years. That's extraordinary, even if you date it from the very first moment of the Web, which some date as Christmas 1990. That's still less than ten years, and you've seen it spread through all age groups, through all parts of the United States, with the notable exception of reservations. By and large, reservations have terrible or very, very limited telephone service, so that's held back the introduction of Internet service at Indian reservations."
Powell on what the government should be doing:
"The most important thing government can do right now, I think, would be to help Americans find ways to use this new medium -- not to create a new department or a new headquarters somewhere, but to basically say, "We can almost declare a victory now. We've got all of our schools wired; what should we be doing? What are the appropriate educational uses? What are some of the best works going on around the country?" In fact, let's spotlight some of the best applications, some of the best examples around the U.S. That could be incredibly useful, on its own."
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