The Digital Divide

By Brown, Jessica | Civil Rights Journal, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

The Digital Divide

Brown, Jessica, Civil Rights Journal

If you work for a corporation, and you're looking for a little face-time, a little positive publicity, the sort of thing P.R. people call "corporate goodwill," which is an industry term that refers to engendering a warm fuzzy feeling in people whenever they think about your product, a good thing to do is to hold a press conference and announce that you are donating a handful of computers to a local school. You'll pick an impoverished one, of course. The schools in wealthy neighborhoods already have computers; many have a few in every classroom. And it has to be computers. True, lots of impoverished schools don't have enough textbooks, or enough teachers, or even enough money for pencils, chalk, and toilet paper, but you can't really hold a press conference announcing that you are donating pencils or toilet paper to a low-income school because that makes people uncomfortable. Just thinking about schools that have to rely on corporate largesse to buy toilet paper is enough to make a lot of people change the channel. No, computers are better, mostly because they're still thought of as a luxury item. Unlike textbooks, it's okay that only wealthy schools are guaranteed to have them; and unlike textbooks, when poor children are given access to computers, this is still viewed as an act of generosity, and not the fulfillment of a basic right.

The Digital Divide

In August 1999, the U.S. Department of Commerce released a report that, for a couple of days at least, grabbed headlines. The report, Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide, was conducted by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and examined trends in Americans' access to, and usage of, the Internet, computers, and telephones. It found that, while the overall number of American homes, schools and businesses connected to the Internet is rapidly increasing, a large segment of society, namely people of color, the poor, and residents of rural and inner city communities, are seriously lagging behind in access to this and other types of information technology. "The good news," note the study's authors, "is that Americans are more connected than ever before. Access to computers and the Internet has soared for people in all demographic groups and geographic locations. At the end of 1998, over 40 percent of American households owned computers, and one quarter of all households had Internet access." Accompanying this good news, however, was the persistence of what researchers and activists call the "digital divide," or the gap between the ability of privileged members of our society, and that of historically disadvantaged members, to access and use technology.

Not surprisingly, income remains a very strong factor in determining who will have access to electronic resources, and who will not. For instance, while about 80 percent of homes with annual incomes of $75,000 or more had computers in 1998, and about 60 percent were using the Internet, less than 40 percent of homes with annual incomes between $35,000 and $25,000 had home computers and less than 20 percent had Internet access. Of the poorest homes, those making less than $15,000 annually, computer ownership and Internet use fell to 15 percent and less than 10 percent, respectively. The data indicate, however, that income is not the only factor contributing to the digital divide. Whites of any income are still more likely to own computers and have Internet access than their black and Latino peers. For instance, while 33 percent of whites making between $15,000 and $35,000 had computers, only about 19 percent of blacks did. This overall discrepancy is so broad, reports NTIA, that a child in a low-income white family is still three times more likely to have Internet access than a black child in a comparable family, and four times more likely than a Hispanic child.

Unfortunately, the data for schools and libraries isn't any more encouraging. "Traditionally," write Susan Goslee and Chris Conte in Losing Ground Bit by Bit: Low-Income Communities in the Information Age, a report published by the Benton Foundation in June of 1998, "we have looked to schools and libraries to help eliminate disparities in access to information resources. …

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