Many people have come to take computers and, by extension, Internet access for granted. The Internet is as much a part of their daily routine as retrieving the newspaper from the front step, checking the mailbox and making a stop at the store.
A compelling problem at this stage of human existence is that too many people , a majority, in fact , do not have access to the technological advances that so many of us have made part of our lives. This phenomenon has come to be known as the Digital Divide, and it delineates those with computer and Internet access from those who don’t have access.
We call them the “haves” and the “have-nots.” If that sounds harsh, it is very real.
Consider a U.S. Commerce Department study released in July. It found that 60 percent of households earning $75,000 or more have Internet access. Of households earning $20,000 or less, only 10 percent have Internet access. It’s a classic case of the “haves” having yet one more advantage that the “have-nots” do not enjoy.
And how significant is this digital divide? Should we simply shrug our shoulders and say this is just another of those “quirks” that separate the comfortable from needy? Just like some people have three-car garages with luxury cars and some people have ramshackle homes without a car to park?
We cannot do that. We cannot afford to do that.
Let me cite a statement I found on the Internet on Dec. 9: “Together we have the power to determine exactly what we want the Internet to become, and what we want to do is to be an instrument of empowerment, education, enlightenment and economic advance and community building all across America, regardless of the race, the income, the geography of our citizens.”
President Bill Clinton issued this directive in the White House Rose Garden and revealed he was planning a spring tour of depressed areas of America that have been deprived of Internet access. His announcement came as Commerce Secretary William Daley was convening a digital divide summit to consider means of “bridging” the gap between the haves and have-nots.
Computers In Ivory Towers
I have been fortunate, in my lifetime, to be on the cutting edge of computer technology. For the longest of time, computers were isolated to the ivory towers of corporate America.
And then came the revolution. Personal computers, along with laptops, hit the market. I’d like to be able to say I knew how much impact computers would have on society. I surely suspected they would be increasingly important to our world as a whole, but who would have thought they would so swiftly change the fabric of everyday life?
Therein lies the problem created by the Digital Divide. They are not a part of everyone’s lives.
As President Clinton said, the demographic divide is marked. Whites, for example, are more likely to have Internet access across all income levels than blacks or Hispanics. Americans living in either inner cities or rural areas are also much less likely to have Internet access.
And this problem is definitely a societal flaw. Computers and Internet access are tools for educational advancement and enlightenment. They are tools for professional advancement and empowerment. The stark reality is the people who maybe need all of these tools the most do not have access. These are the people who will be held back in spite of the existence of the technology they need to improve their lot in life.
It might seem an over-simplification to suggest that it is most important that we reach out to children. The truth is that they are the future. As dramatically as our world has changed, they will surely face more accelerated technological gains. They must be educated as children have never before been educated because their generation will confront unprecedented challenges.
Obviously, it is impossible to place a computer in every American home. That would be much more far-fetched than the old “chicken in every pot” political promise. Instead, we have to bring people to computers.
For instance, Coleman College has collected nearly 500 outdated computers that are being refurbished by Coleman’s technical students and donated to schools and charitable groups. In addition, the Computer Museum of America at Coleman’s La Mesa campus has teamed with Microsoft to create The Learning Center, an $80,000 facility that makes computer training and Internet access available to youngsters who would not otherwise enjoy such technology.
We hope other San Diegans will join us in coming up with innovative grassroots solutions. To bridge the Digital Divide, we need a heightened awareness of its existence and, more importantly, a determined willingness to play a role in closing this abysmal abyss.
Blanchard is president of Coleman College.