Thinking About Community Technology and the Digital Divide

Thinking About Community Technology and the Digital Divide

Why computer access is an important topic

By: Josh Senyak and Albert Fong

November 30, 2000

There's a bittersweet pleasure in watching the media love the Digital Divide halfway to death. Five years ago, the problem didn't even have a name. Today it's discussed everywhere, from pool halls to the White House. Everybody knows that whites, Asians, the wealthy and educated are far more likely to use information technology than are blacks, Latinos, the poor, those living in inner cities or rural areas. Everybody knows that the gap is unfair, serious, and growing.

It's good to see that the issue has finally won household recognition and some powerful new friends. But we're concerned that not enough people are asking a fundamental question about the Digital Divide. Why are we so concerned about poor kids' access to computers when they don't even have basic necessities of life? We know that wealth, housing, health care, decent education and good jobs are divided just as disproportionately between "haves" and "have-nots." Given these desperate gaps, what makes computer access anything more than a luxury?

Is it because technology access opens the door to education, jobs, and all the other good things in life? Technology vendors certainly appreciate that point of view. It makes good copy for politicians, too. President Clinton, in his "National Call to Action" on the Digital Divide, declared: "If we work together to close the digital divide, technology can be the greatest equalizing force our society or any other has ever known." Well-meaning enthusiasts envision a promised land of "digital opportunity." Thanks to the Internet, they say, every homegrown business can compete head-to-head with the corporate giants. Children of migrant workers can access the same information as their country-club counterparts. Discrimination will eventually evaporate, banished by the magic of the network. Technology, according to the deathless cliché, levels the playing field.

Not quite. As it turns out, the best computer access in the world won't get you into Stanford if you can't read and write. And while thousands of programming positions are available on-line, they'll probably go to somebody else if you don't have the resources to set up your childcare, a decent suit of clothes, and a ride to the interview. Technology really hasn't changed the fundamental rules of the game very much. All the handicaps in the race continue to favor the "haves." The real barriers to opportunity -- language, education, literacy, poverty, discrimination -- are left untouched. The Digital Divide is real, but it's hardly the most serious divide for Americans seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Our best weapon against the Digital Divide is recognizing it as merely the bleeding edge of a much deeper, much more serious gap in opportunities and privilege.

Technology, by itself, will never erase gaps in wealth or opportunity. On the contrary. New technologies can be expected to concentrate wealth rather than equalize it. By illustration, the years 1983 through 1995 saw an explosion of PCs and the rise of the Web. They also witnessed a remarkable 17percentgrowth of inflation-adjusted net wealth for America's richest one percent...while the equivalent wealth of America's bottom two fifths plunged by 80 percent. These figures are somewhat hard to reconcile with the warm glow of opportunity conjured up by Silicon Valley's cheerleaders.

If computers don't provide a royal road out of poverty, does the Digital Divide really matter after all? We believe that it does-but not because of anything radical, revolutionary or "smart" about the wired world. Once the exciting hype is set aside, computer technology is revealed as a pretty ordinary, prosaic set of tools.

And this, in our opinion, is exactly why computers and the Internet must be available to all, regardless of ethnicity or geography or income. Not because the technology is somehow special or revolutionary, but exactly because it's so ordinary. Nobody expects the ordinary, familiar features of our national infrastructure--public libraries, telephones, highways, public transportation, immunizations or post offices -- to end poverty or to bestow social and economic equity. They're just simple, basic tools for living in the modern world. Everybody should have them. That's why they're important, and that's why they deserve public funding. We believe that the same applies to access to computers and the Internet.

So it doesn't matter, finally, whether everyone in America eventually owns a home computer and DSL line. What does matter is that all people have some way to access and use information technology, if and when needed, to meet the ordinary demands of life: to write a resume, buy a ticket, get a good price on a car purchase, send a note, look up street directions. Access to technology then looks something like public access to libraries, recreation centers, and parks. It won't change the world. But it is one more factor that contributes to a community's overall quality of life.

Over the past five years, we've had the good fortune to work with a talented, creative, outspoken group of colleagues developing community technology centers ( CTCs) in California and throughout the US. These centers serve an amazing range of people on the wrong side of the Digital Divide, giving them technology access, training, and support. As we've come to see it, the role of technology in the CTC is exemplified by three guiding principles:

  • Program comes first: Hardware, software and data lines are just the skeleton of technology access. In fact, these "hard costs" are quickly dwarfed by the investments needed for educational programs and staff. Access isn't complete until there are programs and staff in place to help people learn how to use the technology and how to apply it to their everyday pursuits: jobs, education, services, health, financial planning, consumer information, personal interests and creativity.
  • Fight the hype: Marketers use tremendously sophisticated advertising techniques to sell technology as an exciting, bewildering mystery. Ordinary consumers need the tools to break through the mystery-to understand how technology works, what it can (and cannot) do for them and for their communities. Access centers should encourage their users to tear computers down and build them back up, to experiment and improvise. In fact, many centers forbid their users from "passive consumption" of technology, such as simple game-playing or random web-surfing. Users are shown instead how to create their own websites, how to create and modify digital images, how to program their own applications.
  • Match the technology to the need: CTCs can't afford a lot of support costs and their users can't afford a lot of down time. Thus the level of technology should be no more sophisticated than needed (and no less!) to achieve the center's explicit programmatic goals. There's usually somebody hanging around the CTC who is very fond of the wires and the toys. That person shouldn't be left alone to design the network.

The CTC has proven its merit on the ground. If it doesn't fill in the Digital Divide, at least it functions as a tough and serviceable rope bridge over the gap. We've learned that CTC-style access can be delivered in low-income communities for as little as $50 per person per year. The CTC model clearly generates intense excitement, interest and sense of ownership within the communities it serves.

After half a century of digital exploration, our society is more plagued than ever by social and economic division. Despite best efforts and intentions, the playing field is not level. Through no fault of their own, millions of children are faced with vastly restricted opportunities for personal and professional growth and fulfillment. Information technology is not a simple answer to this problem. People aren't poor because they lack access to the Internet. They lack access because they're poor. But, to the extent that access to technology can make a difference, the CTC is a concrete and effective solution.

Of the many inequities we must address as a society, this may be one that we can actually fix.

About the Authors:

Josh Senyak is the founder of Quicksilver Consulting, a company that develops databases for nonprofits, collaborations, and scientific research.

TechSoup thanks Albert Fong for contributing this article.


Faith (for Content):