December 20 2002

Poor Forgotten as ‘Digital Divide’ Still Gapes

By Paul Lamb
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE

Since the demise of the dot-coms we have heard less and less about the ”digital divide” — that late-1990s buzzword for the gap between technology haves and have-nots. Has the technological playing field truly been leveled, or are Americans too worried about unemployment, the stock market and a war with Iraq to give a digital damn?

Joe Booth, a young man I know who rose from a life of poverty and gang violence to become a successful computer technician, says the divide is still there.

“There are programs out there that will help teach people to use the Internet and operate a computer,” Joe says. “But many people can’t afford these classes.”

Some say the divide is gone — or soon will be. Because more than half of all Americans now have Internet access, they say, and because computers and technology prices will continue to decline, there will soon be a computer and the Internet in every home across the land.

But today, only 25 percent of American households earning less than $15,000 per year have Internet access, while nearly 80 percent of families earning $75,000 or more have access in the home.

Furthermore, a computer and Internet access in the home (or in the school) does not a technologically literate and work-force-ready populace make. Having a television in the home, for instance, does not guarantee that people will choose educational programming over Jerry Springer.

How one uses technology is every bit as important as whether one uses it at all.

While familiarity with the tools of technology and its related knowledge/skills base grows exponentially among the technology elite (meaning folks who have both technology access and an education), the poor and uneducated are standing still. In the poorest neighborhoods I work in, I cannot recall seeing anyone carrying a Palm Pilot or laptop.

Sure, cell phones and pagers abound, but the tools of choice on the street are not the tools of choice on the job.

How will these same folks survive in the 21st century workforce, armed with only cell phones and pagers and not the work-related technology, skills and jargon the tech elite take for granted?

I am reminded of a poem called “Digital Monster,” written by a student of mine. “The monster had pushed me forward into a new world I knew nothing about ... I tried to start a stride but my feet were stuck.”

It’s time for a serious national initiative to bridge the digital divide — not the glitzy corporate initiatives and presidential technology tours to low-income neighborhoods that we saw in the ’90s. Some starting points:

—In the home: Train and dispatch “technology missionaries” to educate families in low-income and underserved communities. Right in their homes, families can be shown a variety of low-cost equipment options and receive basic, ongoing training for making the best use of technology. This service could be managed by a national community technology agency that hires and trains workers from local neighborhoods, and underwritten by vendors who compete for national equipment and service contracts.

—In the schools: Public schools should develop technology-specific vocational training tracks, the way they have done for other trades in the past. State universities and community colleges should begin to move away from their on-campus mindset, where an Internet elite already exists, and start designing specialized technology-training programs in communities at large.

—In the community: Expanded community technology centers, or CTCs, can provide mass trainings in the latest technology skills, delivering the culture and language of technology in a non-threatening way to under-served populations. From these centers could spring digital villages, e-business parks, new media outlets, and 21st century public spaces that allow local communities and businesses to organize and educate around local needs.

Some of the above ideas have already been put into practice, but only in limited and piecemeal ways. The federal government is rapidly scaling back its support for digital-divide projects.

If we continue to keep our heads buried in the sand, denying the digital divide, we risk losing an opportunity to take full advantage of a technology-driven economy. Let’s not, in the words of one struggling youth I know, relegate an entire generation to the role of “worthless, sign-carrying hobos on the information superhighway.”

Paul Lamb is Executive Director of Street Tech (www.streettech.org) and chairman of the Bay Area Technology and Education Collaborative (www.baytec.org).

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