01 Sep 2001 Hopping Across the Digital Divide, by Melissa Wiedbrauk
There is an ongoing concern that the poor and minorities are not up to speed with the rest of America when it comes to computer technology. It’s called the “digital divide.” But, like many other modern complaints about race, class and equality, claims of technological segregation are more hot air than true discrimination.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) claim this technology gap is enormous. They portray anyone who doesn’t own a computer as a victim – condemned to financial and intellectual slavery. Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA) once said, “Until we eradicate the divide that is growing between those who have access to the Net and those who do not have access, we must press on. We cannot afford to leave behind any of our children in this Information Age. Failure to bridge the gap will relegate our sons and daughters to sit in the backseat of the technology train on the Information Superhighway.”1
To bridge the gap, the CBC wants the government to cater to the underprivileged. They seek taxpayer support to buy computers and access. They believe more government spending and more programs are the only solutions to aid those thought to be missing out on opportunities readily available to the wealthy.
Not to be outdone by the CBC, the Democratic National Committee wants government and high-tech industry to supply access to low cost computers, provide affordable or free mandate the Internet and access to online help for new users to learn the benefits of the Internet.2
These e-welfare activists appear not to notice the growing numbers of minorities and people of lower incomes who have bridged the digital divide by hopping across the gap on their own. A report by the U.S. Department of Commerce released in October 2000 found more people are connecting to the Internet than ever. This includes blacks and Hispanics, women and people at every age, location, income and educational level.3
All of the things liberals want the government to provide are already being addressed by natural forces of the free market without the need for taxpayer-financed programs. All the hype appears to simply be political opportunism.
For example, computer executive Charles Smulders recently lamented at the industry’s PC Expo that “Everyone who needs a PC already has one.”4 This, plus stiff competition within the industry, has new computers priced as low as $200.5 If a bargain can’t be found on a new computer, a perfectly good used one can be found through auctions, private sales or company giveaways. Internet access is also easy and affordable, and does not necessarily require computer ownership if Web TV is used. One can also visit a library to plug into the Internet. Service providers such as Juno offer both free Internet access and e-mail.
As for online instruction, the Internet is user-friendly enough for children these days. Just point and click. Hyperlinks and search engines make it easy to navigate, and many applications already provide online help screens. If someone thinks they are hopelessly Internet illiterate and cannot find a friend to help them, they only need to check out a book like Internet for Dummies or a similar text.
On the web, African-Americans and other minorities have every reason to feel welcome. Besides easy access, there is quality content specifically designed for African-Americans, including www.bet.com, www.topblacks.com, www.blackgirl.org, www.blackpressusa.com, www.money.com and www.blackelectorate.com. Each site also offers additional links. They feature information including business, politics, technology, economics, shopping, literature, food, health, careers, lifestyles, headlines and families. And all of them cater to black interests.
Throughout history, the first to own new innovations like in-home electricity, telephone, automobile and even indoor plumbing have typically been the wealthy. As time progressed, however, prices fell. Those in lower economic standing were able to afford the technologies that eventually became essentials for living.
Likewise, we are now in the beginning stages of Internet technology. Not everyone has obtained the latest computer innovations, but minorities are not the forlorn souls peering across the great precipice of the digital divide that some claim.
Our society has never guaranteed equality of outcome. It does, however, recognize equality in opportunity. It’s time we grow up, stop blaming others for what we don’t have and start accepting responsibility while reaching for the privilege of attaining our dreams. All it takes to bridge the digital divide is an assertive mind and dedicated action.
Melissa Wiedbrauk is a research associate with The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank.
1 Representative Maxine Waters, “Rep. Waters Joins President Clinton in Launch of Digital Divide New Markets Initiative Tour,” Press Release, April 4, 2000.
2 “Closing the Digital Divide,” Democratic National Committee, Washington, DC, downloaded from http://www.freedom.com on June 29, 2001.
3 “Falling through the Net,” U.S. Department of Commerce, Washington, DC, October 2000.
4 Mike Musgrov, “No New Big Thing,” Washington Post, June 27, 2001.
5 Lisa DiCarlo, “Why Dell Will Stay on Top of the World,” Forbes.com, April 25, 2001.