A new report from the Department of Commerce brings good news to most Americans and serves as a wake-up call for those who believe the digital divide is the civil liberties issue of the 21st century.
The digital divide refers to the gap between those who have access to technology and those who do not. Back in the heady days of the dot-com boom everything was out of proportion, including political rhetoric. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, for example, called the digital divide "classic apartheid," the NAACP's Kweisi Mfume dubbed it "technological segregation," and President Clinton urged a "national crusade."
But a new report from the Department of Commerce (DOC), "A Nation online: How Americans are expanding their use of the Internet," helps to explain why the digital divide is not a crisis that places citizens in urgent need of more government help.
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 report also shows that Internet use is continuing to increase for everyone regardless of income, education, age, race, ethnicity or gender. Even groups not historically "early adopters" are growing their online presence. For instance, the DOC report shows that 39.8 percent of blacks and 31.6 percent of Hispanics are online.
What might be the most remarkable finding of the DOC report is that "between December 1998 and September 2001, Internet use by individuals in the lowest income households (those earning less than $15,000 per year) increased at a 25 percent annual growth rate." In 2001, 25 percent of lower income people were online, and if things continue at this rate, it won't be long before virtually everyone who wants to connect can.
Further, last week, Jupiter Media Metrix reported that the age of online shoppers is moving up while the income level drops. In other words, those on the Net are starting to look a lot more like the real world population. This is a good time to re-evaluate some of the assumptions that fed the digital divide hysteria.
This is a good time to re-evaluate some of the assumptions that fed the digital divide hysteria.
Not all individuals want to use computers or get online. Everyone knows someone, rich or poor, who chooses not to have voice mail, call waiting, or even a television. Many of the Internet's so-called "have-nots" are really "want-nots."
The DOC report proves that even lower income people can get wired if they see it as a priority. And that's no surprise given all the investment that local community groups and technology companies have spent on promoting access over the last couple of years. Those who cannot get online in this environment have other problems that a computer and Internet access won't fix.
Technology is not a silver bullet that will solve all social and economic problems. This will disappoint those who believed President Clinton when he said, "Technology can be the greatest equalizing force our society or any other has ever known." If digital divide crusaders really want to solve the world's inequities, they should direct their efforts toward key issues that mattered before the advent of high technology. Promoting economic growth would be a good place to start.
Education is probably the most important issue that affects the ability to benefit from technology. Unless people can read and understand what they find on the Internet, all the computers and networks in the world won't be of much use. Taxes are another important consideration.
The real issues are the sorry state of education and the push to raise the taxes that affect lower income families most.
Government regulators continue the push to tax the Net and other things digital. If they succeed, some lower income people could lose the access they've gained when faced with paying more for online access and products.
The digital divide is not a crisis, and it is certainly not the civil liberties issue of the 21st century. The real issues are the sorry state of education and the push to raise the taxes that affect lower income families most.
Education and tax reform move a lot slower than the speed of technology. If they want to help low-income Americans, that's the gap policy-makers should seek to close.