T O UNDERSTAND HOW INFINITESIMALLY NARROW THE DIGITAL DIVIDE CAN BE, YOU NEED ONLY ENTER THE EMERGENCY HOUSING CONSORTIUM’S HOMELESS SHELTER IN SAN JOSE, CALIF., ON A SCHOOL NIGHT.
Walk past the guard at the reception desk, down past the rows of slightly musty bunk beds, past the red-eyed guys slumped in front of a tiny TV screen filled with colored snow. Just as your heart starts to sag with despair for the human condition, though, stop and take a peek through the locked door on the right.
The contrast couldn’t be starker. You see a brilliant white computer lab with state-of-the-art PCs and a massive Ethernet hookup; rows of servers with blinking green lights and spaghetti wiring.
Class is in session, so enter quietly. Star pupil Mark Alexander, who didn’t have so much as a room to sleep in until his demolition-site buddy hooked him up a few months ago, is hitting the instructor with rapid-fire questions about “the syntax to set up command encapsulation ps’p” and how many “classes of LCP frames” there are. “It’s not simple stuff,” Alexander explains. “These are abstract concepts. You have to meditate on them.”
Meditate on this as well: when Alexander’s class of 15—including welfare moms and borderline homeless people—graduates this December after 10 months of intensive night classes, they will be certified network technicians, the indispensable plumbers of the New Economy, capable of commanding a salary between $40,000 and $70,000 a year. Not a bad return on the $90,000 the city of San Jose has invested in the program—and a promising source of qualified workers for Internet giant Cisco, which provides the coursework and the hardware.
Hundreds of similar Network Academies, operating in at-risk, inner-city high schools around the country will have graduated 25,000 technicians by the end of 2000. This is the first in a homeless shelter, but almost certainly not the last. “I’ve got a million calls,” says Amy Estes, program manager at the shelter. “People are motivated by the money, but they also want to prove to the world they can do this.”
Then there are times when the digital divide looks unfathomably deep. The phrase has become mired in the blurry realm of cliché, applied variously to women, the disabled, seniors, ethnic minorities, rural and inner-city populations.
But the underlying threat is real. Technology has moved so fast that a new upper class—composed largely of the same white, affluent, college-educated males that made up the old upper class—has spurted ahead of the rest of society, mostly because they have the time and money necessary to acquire and understand the tools of the digital revolution.
This is not merely an apocalyptic vision. Members of this digital class are already banking and trading stocks, over high-speed Internet connections and whipping out wireless Palm Pilots while others wait in sluggish teller lines with pockets full of Post-it notes . Buy online, and you generally avoid sales tax; if shopping in the real world is your only option, you pay full whack . By 2004, there will also be a digital divide between 29 million households with super-fast broadband Internet access and the online equivalent of the middle class—those who still lumber along on 56K modems. Taken all together, these tiny, day-to-day advantages potentially add up to a class gap of Dickensian proportions.
It’s not as if the dangers ar e unrecognized. The next Congress will play host to a paper storm of some 50 bills and provisions supposedly designed to close the gap. But most deal in the abstract world of FCC regulation and tax relief for telcos. Programs with practical ends—like turning the homeless into network technicians—exist largely in the private sector
Maybe Washington is better at the high-concept stuff, but politicians run the risk of paying mere lip service to the main issues. “We’ll declare victory when we get a school wired, but that’s just the first step,” says Robert Knowling, who was CEO of broadband Internet provider Covad until he was forced to resign last month for missing the company’s financial projections. “It’s just putting on a uniform and arriving at the game. Then you’ve got to show people how to play the game.”
Until his ouster, Knowling was one of the few, very few, African-American CEO5 in Silicon Valley. Born in cotton-picking poverty in rural Missouri, he has often voiced discomfort over sitting in tech-firm boardrooms surrounded by photographs of white men. And he’s not one to pull. punches. After listening to a litany of feel-good rhetoric at a digital-divide round-table discussion with Bill Clinton last April, Knowling stood up and predicted that the President and his guests would leave the room all pumped up—and by the following Friday forget everything they’d talked about.
While Knowling regrets his burst of candor—”I wish I’d just shut up during that meeting”—he notes that his brand of painful honesty seems to be catching. “Five years ago, you didn’t have so many people in this industry caring about this issue.” One of them happens to be the consummate affluent, white, educated male, Bill Gates.
At another digital-divide conference last month, he practically exploded over grandiose talk of wiring the Third World. “Does anybody have any idea what it’s like to live on $1 a day?” asked the world’s richest man . “There are things people need at that level other than technology.” As Brecht wrote, food comes before morality. Gates’ $25 billion charitable foundation is lavishing more money on immunization than on Internet access.
A MERICANS CAN GENERALLY AFFORD ASPIRATIONS BEYOND MERE SURVIVAL, BUT GATES’ PRINCIPLE ---—THOSE MOST AT RISK OF DIGITAL DISENFRANCHISE-MENT OFTEN HAVE THEIR MINDS ON OTHER PROBLEMS STILL APPLY HERE.
Leah Garland, a second-grade teacher who transferred from an inner-city school in Macon, Ga., to one in the middle-class suburb of McDonough, south of Atlanta, has seen it firsthand . Her Macon pupils (one of whom had his book bag stolen for drug money by his estranged mother) were just as eager as their McDonough counterparts to get their hands on computers
But in Macon , Garland had to battle both short attention spans and the kids’ belief that the Internet had nothing to do with their future . “There’s little to no parental support for the kids who don’t have technology in their homes,” says Garland. “ And the parents wouldn’t buy it if they had the money.”
Which is why the $1.6 billion spent during the past seven years by the state of Georgia to get computer equipment into schools doesn’t count for much by itself. Well aware of that, town leaders in La Grange, Ga., are going the extra distance to build an entire Internet-friendly community. Last March, Mayor Jeff Lukken announced that all 11,000 La Grange households would have the option of free high-speed cable-modem access, thanks to a deal he’d spent three years cutting with cable provider Charter Communications, based in St. Louis, Mo. Charter provides the cable box and basic service (cost: $9 a month), and if you can’t afford even that, the city will pay for it
“People resist technology because it’s irrelevant to their lives, because they fear it, distrust it or can’t afford it,” says Lukken. “We want to take away every barrier to entry.” So far, half the town has signed up; most of the rest already had Internet access. The result is a town of Capra-esque perfection, where the senior center and public housing have superfast hookups to the largest repository of knowledge and commerce ever created.
Getting everyone to make full use of it is a different matter.
“ft’s a God-sent gift,” says Ten Rockel, a nurse with a 10-year-old daughter. But is LaGrange’s perfection replicable? Will other broadband companies— especially those serving poor or isolated rural districts—be willing to repeat the experiment?
Right now 18 million urban and suburban homes and only 1 million rural homes have broadband Internet access. The most popular digital-divide bill before Congress offers tax relief to Baby Bells that make rural phone lines DSL-ready.
Trouble is, DSL is the kind of broadband service that requires you to be within a certain distance of your local switching station. Up-grading rural lines across the country would cost a staggering $11 billion. ft’s hard to imagine a tax break
that could compensate.
Corporations do occasionally dole out digital freebies —especially to their own employees. Delta Airlines, for one, started offering dirt-cheap laptops and desktops to its 74,000 staff members in October. Americans who don’t enjoy the shelter of corporate wings often have to rely on charity to join the 21st century—or, in some cases, to get a recycled piece of the 20th.
Computers to Help People, a non-profit based in Madison, Wis., turns donated computer parts into systems for people who can’t afford new ones . It’s a very wonderfully well-intentioned enterprise but one more doomed than most others by blitzkrieg advances in computing. Admits Carl Durocher, the agency’s assistant technology manager : “We’re not closing the digital divide a whole lot like this.”
So who is? More and more, it’s those with enough determination and luck to scrape together the necessary equipment and learning. Take Withrow High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, an inner-city, 85% African-American school where students were being taught on typewriters less than two years ago. Now all its classrooms have Internet access of some kind, on whatever computers the school could beg, borrow or recycle . It took all the state grants, vocational funds and educational charities principal Paul Ramstetter could muster. He had to eliminate the home-economics class in order to buy a couple of $2,500 laptops. “We decided to go for technology,” says Ramstetter. “We thought it was more important.”
Yet it appears there is a large and stubborn minority of the population who do not share Ramstetter’s priorities. Professors at UCLA recently conducted the first of what is to be an annual, large-scale study of patterns of Internet usage. The first survey, while offering good news on the gen der and race front—more women went on-line last year than men, more blacks and Latinos than whites—uncovered a whole e new group of disaffected—those who are and proud of it. Half of those with no Internet access, around 20%, were simply not interested in getting online. “That will take a generation or two to straighten out,” predicts Professor Jeffrey Cole, aud author of the study . “The U.S. may well end up being the last industrialized nation to achieve 90% Internet penetration.”
W HAT, THEN, DOES IT TAKE TO GET EVERYONE ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE DIGITAL DIVIDE?
The answer is sim ple, if expensive—college. Degree-bearing graduates are eight times as likely to have a computer at home and 16 times as likely to access the Internet from home as those with lower levels of education, according to a recent Commerce Department study.
That’s what motivated Carlos Watson to found the highly successful college-prep program Achiever.com. Watson’s self-taught grandmother, the granddaughter of slaves in Jackson, Miss., graduated from college and was followed by her six siblings , seven children and 19 grandchildren. “There’s a real belief in college in my family,” Watson says . With the help of school districts around the country, he recruits at-risk students—most of whom hadn’t ‘ thought of college—for an intensive online course that covers nailing the SAT5, applications and scholarships. Result: 85% of Achiever.com students go on to one of the four-year schools of their choice.
“I can’t tell you how many labs I go by where there’s dust that high on the computer keyboard,” Watson says. “What we haven’t done is give kids a reason to get real excited about using the computer.” And the only reason that works, in the Watson world view, is naked self-interest. He just may be right. There’s certainly no dust on the keyboards at John O’Connell high school’s computer lab. It was packed with students for six hours of voluntary, credit-free SAT prep one baking-hot San Francisco Saturday afternoon in November. Diana Valdivia, a junior, signed up for the program just a few weeks earlier and is now aiming for UCLA . “I’m doing this for my future,” she says.
Self-interest, when it comes down to it, is the strongest reason for any of us to join the digital era. In programs like Achiever.com and the Cisco Networking Academies , there’s self-interest on both sides. The companies help create a skilled workforce that can install and maintain its products—and make money too . The students get their lives on track . In Silicon Valley this is known as “philanthropic entrepreneurialism.” and it looks very much like the wave of the future
There are still a lot of disaffected people with a lot to prove to the world. Given means, motive and opportunity, anyone can breach the digital divide. It’s as easy as turning the key in that homeless shelter’s classroom door.
--- —With reporting by Ann Blackman
and Anne Moffettl /Washington,
Sarah Dale/Chicago and ColIefte
McKennal/Atlanta TIME Magazine
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