The Digital Divide

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Many discussions concerning how the Internet changes our views of race and, more generally, what role race plays in the cyberworld presume that the Internet is a world where white, black, brown, and yellow are represented equally. Unfortunately, reality is far harsher. The third in a series of studies conducted by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a branch of the Commerce Department, has revealed not only an existing racial divide, but also a growing one. In its study, the NTIA found that White Americans were almost twice as likely to use the Internet, with 37.7% of Whites on the Net, and only 19.0% of African Americans on the Net. The report noted that this digital divide is expanding to the point of being a "racial ravine." As an example, the gap between White and African-American households with Internet access has increased by 53.3%. There was similarly a 39.2% increase in the percentage difference between White and African-American computer ownership. Even upon holding income constant, the racial disparity was still significant. A White, two-parent family earning less than $35,000 is three times more likely to have an Internet connection than a similarly situated African-American family. Although the gap between African Americans and Whites has closed in the higher income brackets, and is still decreasing, it is nevertheless substantial at the lower points of the economic spectrum.

What has been the government's response to this? Well, President Clinton has vowed to make bridging the digital divide one of his main issues during the remainder of his presidency. In his recent trip to Comdex, the leading computer trade show in the country, President Clinton urged technology executives to work with the government to bridge the divide. Moreover, Clinton, in reaction to the latest statistics, has issued an executive memorandum directing the Commerce Department to work with national the private sector in developing a national strategy for increasing the possibility for connecting the least-connected to the Internet. In his budget, Clinton wants Congress to provide $100 million for development of community technology centers and $150 million next year to train new teachers. The president also is asking for $2 billion over 10 years in tax incentives to companies that donate computer equipment and assistance to schools, libraries and community centers.

We, the Open Net e-lab, ask you to consider what effects the racial and class disparity in Internet access and presence has on our idea of the Internet as a "commons" where, ideally, people can congregate and discuss the most vexing issues of the day, racial or otherwise. Is it possible to have a "commons" that does not give access to everyone? Are we afraid of leaving a significant number of our population on the outside looking in during this Internet explosion? As you can tell from the tone of these questions, as you think about "open net" we want you to not only consider the meaning of "open" in the traditional sense - keeping the Net open for those who are already Netizens - but, even more importantly, keeping the medium open, accessible, for those who are not yet on it. For if we want to have a truly open net and move towards an Internet as a facilitator for racial and other discussions, we have the bridge the chasm separating the digital "haves" and "have-nots." Thus, our e-lab asks you as you prepare for our class to take into consideration the effect of the digital divide on the role of race on the Internet and vice-versa.

* Further Resources:

The Clinton Administration Talks About Digital Divide:

Benton Foundation Collection of Links About Digital Divide

Bridging the Digital Divide:
The Impact of Race on Computer Access and Internet Use

Technology Access Foundation

Yahoo Full Coverage: Digital Divide

Is the digital divide a black thing?


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