Analysis of NYTimes Digital Divide Article

(From Nolan)

"Comments of Nolan Bowie regarding New York Times article,
'Digital Divide Closing as Blacks Turn to Internet,' by Michele Marriott, 31 March 06

"My overall impression in a nutshell: Wishful thinking, at best, but a misreading of the facts in order to come to the conclusion that the so-called digital divide has closed and, therefore, is history.

The article itself provides data and other information that can be read as showing that the digital divide is persistent among certain groups, including African Americans, and that it will likely continue among these groups unless government, at all levels, take affirmative initiatives to ensure true universal access to Internet connectivity and services. This is especially true in the area of the digital divide of recent vintage—access to high-speed (10-100MBPS and above) and ultra-speed broadband (1GBPS) that can accommodate instant information on demand including full-motion video, interactive distance learning, remote medical diagnosis, and the full-range of e-government and emergency services.

The article shows that:

In a Pew national survey of people 18 or older, some 39 percent of African Americans do not go online or use the Internet; that 20 percent of English-speaking Hispanic Americans do not use the Internet. It does not provide, however, the number of non-English-speaking Hispanic Americans who do not use the Internet. This missing figure is important since the great bulk of Internet content is available only in the English language as text or prose. This fact raises the question of the literacy requirement to use the Internet—essentially a text-based technology. National literacy surveys reported just last fall show that nearly 47 percent of U.S. adults have great difficulty reading and comprehending what they read. Tests show that that nearly half of the adult U.S. population reads only at the two lowest levels of literacy proficiency, Level 1 and Level 2. This recent report is a follow-up of a national adult literacy study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education done in 1992. There was virtually no improvement in adult literacy in the United States during the 13 periods between the reports. Other national literacy proficiency studies concerning fourth-grade children show that some 63 percent of black fourth-graders and some 58 percent of Hispanic fourth-graders are reading below the proficiency level expected of children in the fourth-grade. So much for 'leaving no child behind.' Too often, they needlessly become illiterate and/or semi-literate adults. If anyone is looking for the origins of any digital divides concerning Internet access, then look no further that the divide between one’s ability to comprehend the arrangement of movable digits of type on the printed page.

Almost 10 percent of the 21 million Americans ages 12-17 (or 2,100,000 teenagers) so not use the Internet. Of this number, 13 percent of white teenagers do not use the Internet; 11 percent of Hispanic teenagers do not use the Internet; and, 23 percent of black teenagers do not use the Internet. One might wonder why so many black teenagers do not use the Internet, assuming that adequate numbers of public PCs and Internet connectivity are available in public schools and public libraries (saying nothing about the availability of skilled personnel to help teach and hand-hold novices through the wonders of cyberspace.)

The article acknowledges continuing divides based on age. A statement reads, “The gap in access among young Americans is less pronounced than among their parents’ generation…Age continues to be a strong predictor for Internet use.” But nowhere is there provided any numbers that would actually measure the distance of this age-divide.

The article recognizes that overall Internet use among blacks still significantly trails among whites—but fails to mention that even whites significantly trails in overall Internet use if compared to Asian American/Pacific Islanders—the demographic grouping that leads all other groups in PC/Internet access and use. This is especially true regarding Chinese Americans, who not only have far greater rates of Internet use and access to other information technologies, but also happen to be among the nations, best readers. Asian Americans ought to be included in any study or reporting about any digital divide or literacy proficiency test results in order to set the accurate standards and, moreover, to discuss the reasons for their performances, including cultural and historical reasons that usually do not get a proper discussion in digital divide debates and analysis.

It should be pointed out that while most (but not all) libraries and schools in the U.S. have public Internet access—it is very limited access and often-time supervised access since the limited supply of PCs or Internet appliances must be shared by many who wish to use them for a variety of purposes. Public access PCs and Internet connectivity are no substitute for owning a home PC with high-speed access. Only home use provides the ample opportunity needed to explore, experiment and play with the technology and its content necessary to develop the comfort-level and skill-base to make the Internet a viable information and communication tool.

The article mentions that education levels remain a major indicator of who is among the 137 million Americans using the Internet and who is not. But since black and brown Americans are generally among the lowest achievement groups in our schools (due to a lot of factors, including poverty, living in high-crime communities, coming from a single parent family, etc.), they make up a disproportionate number of those with less than a high school diploma versus whites and Asian Americans. So the digital divide, cannot e looked at as merely a divide between those who have access to PCs and Internet connectivity and those who do not. It is really a part of a much larger divide—an opportunity divide, a power divide, an education divide, a knowledge divide, a wealth divide, and, a racism divide.

In the case of wealth, why is it surprising that households with an annual income of more than $70,000 have greater access to PCs and the Internet than those households with incomes of less than $35,000 per year?

My colleague a the Kennedy School of Government, Pippa Norris, notes that members of minorities use the Internet to search for jobs and to connect to a wide variety of education opportunities. This is true. But this opportunity is only available to those ‘minorities’ who already have access to the Internet. For those who don’t, such otherwise vital access is a missing opportunity. Increasingly, certain websites, such as Craig’s List and e-Bay become important means of obtaining useful information that gives strategic advantages to those who have access to them. These two websites, for example, have become the essential means to obtain current classified advertising for the purchase of new homes or apartment rentals, or used automobiles or practically anything else that people want to sell or buy cheaply. Google has become a household word as it has become the primary means of initially searching for any and everything ever written and catalogued. Being without these kinds of information services is to be disadvantaged in the 21st century. The same will be true when most cities, states and the federal government fully embrace e-Government for all. Or will it be just for some. E-Government for some, I would remind you, does not produce e-democracy, economic justice, fairness or justice. It will only result in another form of privilege—benefiting the few while all taxpayers underwrite its deployment and costs of operation.

Professor Norris also sees progress on the horizon due to the declining cost of laptop and other computers, as well as efforts like those in Philadelphia to provide low-cost wireless Internet access, which she says are likely to increase online access for groups that have been slow to connect. I agree, but these efforts do not go far enough and they are hit and miss approaches to what is really needed as a national priority.

There is great hope that that the Nicroponte-led group at MIT will soon develop and market a wind-up notebook computer costing no more than $100. Also, cell phones are becoming increasingly more technologically advanced that they are not just used for voice communications but are actually Internet appliances, MP3 players, digital cameras, and game machines. And the price will always be on the decline as even newer, better, cheaper technology take their places, creating even more newer types of digital divides. What the City of Philadelphia is attempting to do by providing a low-cost wireless network throughout the city is a noble experiment, but it is not enough. What is needed is a viable national broadband policy coupled with a national education, public health and education policy. The real reason for any telecommunications network and communications system is to transfer and transmit content, data, information, content, intelligence from one place to another efficiently in order to empower individuals, communities, firms, states and nations. So, lets start with a big vision for the 21st century.

We currently have a national policy on education called, Leave No Child Behind. But what about adults? Many got left behind a long time ago. Shouldn’t we also include them in our vision of inclusiveness? After all, the Communications Act of 1934, as amended, already calls for a nationwide and worldwide affordable communications network and service 'for all the people of the United States.' Thus, the vision is already some 72 years old. It just needs to be readjusted and focused on our nation’s needs for the current century, where we find ourselves in a global knowledge-based economy. If our labor force is to be competitive, creative, and productive and our schools relevant and effective and our citizens healthy and engaged in the democratic process—then we need national public policies that enable and empower the people, including a state-of-the-art information infrastructure that is ubiquitous and universally available to all as public goods, public utilities, public commons. Today, the United States is the only highly industrial country that lacks a national broadband policy. During the past several years, we’ve gone from being number one in broadband deployment to becoming number 16. However, it is now possible to make all of the United States a single Internet hot-zone, using a combination and variety of technologies that are interconnected, interoperable and interactive. Wireless technologies such as WiFi, WiMax, direct satellite, microwave, spread spectrum, cognitive radio, and reuse of over-the-air broadcast spectrum for unlicensed broadband, and, wire-based technologies including coaxial cable, optical fiber, and DSL, together can be used creatively to provide national, ubiquitous, universal access to high-speed and ultra-speed broad Internet connectivity.

The problem with implementation of such a policy is not lack of technology, nor lack of money, but instead, lack of sufficient vision and political leadership. During the 1930s, Congress passed legislation that required the telephone company (then there was only one—AT&T) to provide affordable telephone line service to all who wanted such ‘essential’ service. The policy was called the 'Universal Service Obligation.' And by the late 1970s, telephone penetration in the United States reached approximately 93 percent of all households. African Americans and poor people generally were disproportionately represented among the 7 percent households without telephone service then, even with lifeline and other subsidized services mandated by government. It now appears that these same groups, blacks, people of color, and poor people will again be among the unconnected in the emerging Information Society—if we leave the issues of ubiquitous access and universal service to the market alone."

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