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Technology and the new class divide

Consultant Paul Lamb warns that technology is exacerbating the class divide rather than helping address it.

I used to think information technology would change everything.

Like many back in the late 1990s, I was convinced the Internet and the growing use of computers could play a major role in leveling the playing field between the haves and have-nots. Not only were new doors unlocked for more open and democratic participation via the Web, and information made suddenly available to everyone, but unprecedented economic opportunities also emerged from an economy on tech steroids. That's why in 1999 I helped establish a technology training academy that's trained and found IT jobs for hundreds of low-income and underserved individuals in Northern California.

It was a heady, hopeful time. Thanks to then-generous public and private funding support, more than 6,000 community-based technology programs sprang up across the country in less than a decade--with the goal of making sure minorities, low-income individuals, the disabled, seniors and other underserved groups could access and use technology to rapidly traverse the digital divide. Public schools and libraries were quickly wired, and computers landed in people's homes at a breathtaking pace.

Though it took more than 50 years for half of all Americans to get access to electricity, and over 70 years for half of American households to gain phone service, it took less than 20 years for 50 percent of Americans to win access to a personal computer and less than 10 years for half of Americans to receive Internet access. According to the latest statistics from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 67 percent of Americans 18 and older now use the Net, and 87 percent of teens (ages 12 to 17) are online. Just over half of home computer users reportedly have high-speed Internet access at home.

Despite all our technology gains, it appears class gaps are widening.

Clearly, our investments have paid off and we've made great strides in bringing many Americans online. But the story doesn't end there. Even today, children from higher income families (annual income of more than $75,000) are twice as likely to have access to a computer at home as those in very low income families (annual income of $15,000 or less). For Internet access the figures are 93 percent for upper income families versus 29 percent for lower income families, and 51 percent for broadband access versus 7 percent. According to Wendy Lazarus, author of a June 1995 report titled "Measuring Digital Opportunity for America's Children" and founder of the Children's Partnership, "We need to take steps today to close the digital opportunity gap, which disadvantages millions of low income and ethnic-minority kids."

The truth is that the promise of a digital utopia where all are more or less equal has not yet come to pass. More broadly, income disparities in the United States are greater than they have been in 30 years, and some suggest that income inequality is growing to levels not seen since the 1880s. Recent studies have also suggested that social mobility is stagnating and possibly even reversing. That means very few people are moving out of the class they were born into. Despite all our technology gains, it appears that class gaps are widening. Could it be that technology is actually exacerbating the class divide rather than helping to address it?

In an era when 60 percent of all jobs now require good fundamental technology skills and technology has become a quality of life indicator, tech elites have noticeable advantages. They're able to demand higher paying jobs, communicate better and faster, and save time and money by handling routine tasks (like paying bills and accessing health information) online instead of in person.

But it's no longer just about having a computer and Internet access. It's about having a high level of comfort with, and the ability to adapt quickly to, new technologies as they're integrated into our work and life patterns. It's about the ability to pull and push information effortlessly from cyberspace, understand the value of that information and share that value with others. As the service and information economy gains strength over manufacturing sectors, the worker who lacks knowledge is in jeopardy. And as the rate of technology introduction and adoption quickens, those who lack the fundamentals, or those who are unable to quickly absorb new technologies, will fall further and further behind.

Are we OK with the emergence of modern castes made up of the technologically connected, semi-connected and disconnected groups?

Sure, some will choose not to participate in the brave new world of technology change. That's to be expected. But for those who want to participate in the new world but lack the education to use technology, the means to afford it, or are just plain alienated from essential technologies--they're being forced to the back of the bus.

Are we OK with the emergence of modern castes made up of the technologically connected, semi-connected and disconnected groups? If technology connectedness is becoming a critical factor for modern success--melding with education, social connections, wealth, etc.--shouldn't we be thinking more proactively of ways to avoid social divisions resulting from technology-based knowledge and opportunity gaps?

These are tough questions. Questions for which there are no easy answers.

An important lesson we all learned during the dot-com boom was that throwing money at technology only provided short-term benefits. We should also have learned that throwing computers and the Internet at the problem of class divides would only get us so far.

But the current trend of trickle-down technology, or letting the marketplace determine who gets technology and who doesn't, isn't the answer either.

If we truly believe that technology access and use is a critical determinant for modern success, and if technology is indeed becoming a more important factor in the complex equation that determines social class and mobility, then we need to take a closer, more nuanced look at the technology and class divide issue. Perhaps it's time to see beyond how many people have computers, the Internet, cell phones and other gadgets, and look instead at the quality of their "connections." Perhaps it's time to try and identify specific technology-related knowledge and opportunity gaps and then figure out more-effective ways of lifting people via technology in ways that benefit us all. Some broader solutions might include:

• Bringing every community online by 2010. Creating statewide or national universal broadband access and launching a technology awareness, availability, and accessibility campaign to connect all citizens to relevant and changing technology products and services (not just the Internet and computers) over the next five years.

• Establishing standards for digital literacy and offering curricula for technology training from public preschool all the way through public college, and in the workplace. Such standards would be revised every two years or so to reflect new technologies.

• Launching a dialogue between communities, business and government to help forge appropriate short- and long-term community technology policies. Appointing a community technology czar to lead this dialogue and to author a five-year technology plan with specific recommendations for state and national governments.

• Establishing digital empowerment zones. DEZs would offer tax and other incentives for the establishment of tech businesses, innovation centers and next-generation broadband access services outside of traditional high-tech sectors and already well-connected communities. Virtual DEZ portals and interactive communities could also be host points for new media, open source and citizen journalism opportunities with content that targets underserved communities.

Though I no longer think information technology will change everything, I remain hopeful that it can still make a difference.