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Tech Industry

Digital divide has not disappeared

Nonprofit advocate Paul Lamb asks whether technology is actually increasing inequalities between people.

If you read only the big picture statistics, you might be fooled into believing that the digital divide has indeed been bridged.

According to a March 2005 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 67 percent of American adults and 87 percent of American teenagers now use the Internet. A September 2004 report by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that 96 percent of all children between ages 8 and 18 have been online at least once, and that number varies by only a few percentage points when broken down by ethnicity and family income.

It appears that we no longer need to worry about building a bridge between technology haves and have-nots.

The real issue...is whether technology is actually increasing inequalities between different groups of people.
If you read in more detail about Internet and technology use in America, you will find a much different story. For example, only 29 percent of school-age children in households with annual incomes of less than $15,000 use a home computer to complete school assignments. In comparison, 77 percent of children in households with incomes of $75,000 or more use a home computer to complete assignments.

But even these income-based figures are not extremely useful. They only represent a one-dimensional view of the situation. Trying to determine whether qualitative inequities exist by just looking at the quantity of people using the Internet and technology tools is problematic. It's like trying to determine how many people can drive a car by just asking if they have ever sat in one.

The real issue that needs to be examined is whether technology is actually increasing inequalities between different groups of people. For example, is the speed at which elites are adopting new technologies creating a growing "knowledge gap" between them and the people who are unaware of, don't know how to use, or can't afford the latest technologies?

If, in fact, technology change is increasing at an ever-more-rapid pace, doesn't it stand to reason that the better-educated, the wealthier and those already fluent in the language of technology will not only get ahead, but also get further and further ahead as time moves on?

How can we quantify this difference to make it real? That's the problem--we can't. But we don't need a research study to point out the real difference in quality of life between an individual who has 24-7 broadband access and a person who has no Internet access at all or who has to wait in line at the public library to get it.

We don't need a Ph.D. to see how difficult it is, in the Information Age, for someone who lacks technology literacy or skills to compete with someone who can pull or push information out anywhere in the world from anywhere, anytime. We don't have to wait for a Department of Commerce report on the next-generation jobs, because by the time those new jobs have been created, the connected elite will already be there.

Let's start by gathering better information on the quality of technology access and use, not just the quantity.
What then should we do about the new digital divide?

Let's start by gathering better information on the quality of technology access and use, not just the quantity. Only then can we begin to address the knowledge gap and what this means in terms of equality. A report out this week from the Children's Partnership, called "Measuring Digital Opportunity for America's Children," is a step in the right direction.

Second, let's put this information to use to develop a technology road map that connects all Americans to technology in a healthy, equitable and sustainable way. A group of individuals with the Community Technology Foundation of California is in the process of creating just such a road map for the state of California.

Third, let's make sure the technology industry itself is a full participant in broadening the scope and usage of technology in socially beneficial ways. California state law, for instance, will require that 50 percent of the benefits from the proposed merger between SBC Communications and AT&T be given back to the public. If the merger is approved, why not take these savings and turn them into real programs addressing the digital divide as identified in a technology road map?

Finally, let's acknowledge that even though it is difficult to quantify, the new face of the digital divide is not new at all. In fact, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke eloquently about it nearly 37 years ago when he said: "Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood, and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this."