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Digital divide still very real

Andy Carvin of the Benton Foundation says rumors of the demise of the digital divide are not just greatly exaggerated--they're flat-out wrong.

In recent weeks, there's been a spate of essays by pundits who've embraced the notion that the digital divide doesn't exist. These essays, including a recent CNET News.com piece by Sonia Arrison, have gleefully heralded a new report by the U.S. Department of Commerce, "A Nation Online."

The report suggests that the digital divide has been solved, and writers such as Arrison have latched onto it with uncritical abandon, embracing its analysis as the new gospel on digital divide policy. Some are even suggesting that the digital divide is a myth--a phantom stirred up by civil rights activists looking for a new crusade.

But let's have a reality check. These rumors of the demise of the digital divide are greatly exaggerated, to say the least. In fact, they are flat-out wrong.

As we all know, there's been a tremendous surge in the number of people who've gone online. For activists who've worked to make the Internet a more mainstream medium, this is no small achievement. But a jump in the overall online population should not be confused with the digital divide being bridged.

In Arrison's essay, she cites a statistic from the report that suggests that 25 percent of households earning $15,000 a year or less are online. Turn this number on its head for just a moment: If 25 percent of the most desperately poor are online, that means 75 percent of them aren't. This is a statistic we should be celebrating?

Just because a small slice of America's poorest families have found a way to go online does not mean that "it is only a matter of time" before the rest of them have the economic means to do so, as Arrison suggests.

Three out of four poor families remain on the wrong side of the digital divide.
It's only natural that a certain percentage of people from every income level will embrace the Internet ahead of their peers; that's why we call them early adopters. So for now, three out of four poor families remain on the wrong side of the digital divide.

To make matters worse, the gap between the poorest and richest households that have gone online has actually increased since 1997. Back then, the gap between these groups was about 35 points--in other words, about 44 percent of the wealthiest families were online, compared with only 9 percent of the poorest. The newest report shows that gap has climbed to nearly 54 points. The digital divide hasn't vanished by any means--instead, it's become more acute.

To Arrison's credit, she raises one important point. Unless people can read and understand what they find online, Internet access isn't very meaningful. According to the Department of Education, approximately 44 million adults are functionally illiterate; they lack the ability to apply basic literacy effectively. The mistake that Arrison and others have made is that they separate the digital divide and education as if they were two mutually exclusive issues that can be tackled separately. Don't worry about the divide--worry about education instead.

The truth is that bridging the digital divide and improving education go hand in hand. Some of the most successful efforts to bridge the divide have occurred through community technology centers, or CTCs. These CTCs offer public Internet access, but perhaps more importantly, they offer learning opportunities--opportunities for people to learn how to use the Internet effectively, augment their reading and job skills, even prep for the U.S. citizenship exam.

The more we choose to dismiss the digital divide as a myth, the more certain it will become ingrained into reality.
Hundreds of CTCs--many of which were funded by federal programs once lauded by then-presidential candidate George W. Bush but are now being axed by the White House--have implemented robust programs that focus on improving the skills of those who need them most.

Similarly, it's important to consider the content side of the digital divide. In its seminal report on the subject, the Children's Partnership demonstrated that despite the overwhelming amount of Internet content, almost none of it addresses the specific needs of underserved, at-risk audiences: the poor, rural communities, the disabled, non-native English speakers and ethnic minorities. This may explain the hesitation among many people who aren't Internet users: They simply don't see a reason to bother, since so little of the content available addresses their particular needs.

If we are ever going to bridge the divide, it will require strategic, ongoing public-private partnerships at the local, national and international level--strategic because our efforts must address literacy and content as well as access, and ongoing because there will always be new technologies coming down the pike, accessible only to those who can afford it and use it effectively.

Technology isn't, and will never be, a quick-fix solution to poverty. But thanks to the thousands of individuals working at CTCs, libraries and other local institutions, it's helping the lives of real people, providing them with the education and tools they need to improve the quality of life in their families and communities.

The digital divide is very real, despite what the pundits tell you. The more we choose to dismiss it as a myth, the more certain it will become ingrained into reality.