Haves, Have-Nots, and Have-to-Haves: Net Effects of the Digital Divide

Elory Rozner

By allowing users to access resources otherwise off-limits and to communicate with people around the world, the Internet is supposed to blur the lines of race, ability, and age. Yet discussions of the "digital divide" abound, with the country divided into technology "haves and have-nots, doers and do-nots, and knowers and know-nots." 1 In other words, not everyone has, uses, or knows how to use technology.

There is a fourth group of computer users, a category more troubling than the digital divide itself: have-to-haves. Created by corporations addressing the digital divide, have-to-haves are people who have to have technology, and they are know-nots of the worst sort: they know not why they are using technology. Have-to-haves do not think critically about technology or understand that the Internet may have serious drawbacks or downsides. This paper documents the digital divide, corporate measures to breed have-to-haves, and effects of a virtual society.

The Divide

Have-nots lack access to computers or the Internet, while know-nots lack the training necessary to operate computers or the Internet. Those who have not and know not reside among many groups of people, including African-American and Hispanic communities, populations over the age of 55, and people with visual or other impairments. In its second, influential report, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration reports that the digital divide is increasing, rather than decreasing. 2


Among African-American communities, the digital divide involves the traditional problem of access to technology but incorporates cultural barriers to usage as well. Internet and computer use is lower in African-American than in white communities, the reasons for which are many but can be blamed mostly on limited access to technology at school, work, and home. Current statistics reflect nearly three times as many white households with online service than African-American households. 3 Additionally, African-Americans are less likely to have computer access at work or to have ever used the Internet at all. 4

Perhaps more problematic than the physical problem of access, however, is the nature of the Net itself, which clashes with African-American culture. As one essayist theorizes, "…black Americans are wary of majority space. The Web is no exception to the rule." 5

Additional turnoffs arise from what Joel Dreyfuss calls "the whiteness of the web," represented by chat rooms filled with "a bunch of white guys talking to each other." 6 The emergence of such sites as NetNoir (1995) 7 ameliorates the situation only slightly, as the majority of the Net is still dominated, like television and other media, by white institutions: of the "100 Top Web Sites" selected by PC Magazine, not one represents or is owned by minorities. 8 In this case, African-Americans are have-nots, because the Net, by virtue of its current characteristics, excludes them from participating.

Physical Impairment

For users with physical impairments, the Net may be physically available (if the user has a computer and Internet service) yet may remain physically inaccessible. In real space, issues of legibility for visually impaired readers led to the creation of large-print texts and audio books. Counterpart measures are not yet widespread on the Net, even though the glare of the screen and the distraction caused by animated advertisements make reading more difficult than does a traditional book. Ironically, while assistive technology devices enable people with physical disabilities to generate computer-activated speech, propel wheelchairs with a turn of their necks, or drive cars with their feet (ultimately affording expanded communication and greater independence), a simple Web site can remain off-limits to a visually impaired surfer.

Screen-reader software, used with Braille or text-to-speech browsers, reads one line of a Web site at a time and works best when only one hyperlink is present per line. Since the resulting effort is long pages that are a nuisance for sighted readers, Web designers do not always comply with the hyperlink restriction. 9 Further complicating issues is the fact that screen-reader software can read text only. There exists a simple HTML code that designers can employ to provide textual descriptions of images, but few commercial sites explore this option, since they feel the audience for such descriptions is so small. 10 Sites such as "All Things Web" 11 and "WebABLE" 12 actively advertise the need for "webable" sites and even outline design considerations for webmasters, but the biggest potential for reform lies in the hands of the World Wide Web Consortium. The W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative is researching technological and educational means to improve accessibility of the Web, but until they develop a long-term solution, visually impaired surfers remain have-nots. 13


In Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte warns that "…people worry about the social divide between the…haves and the have-nots…but the real cultural divide is going to be generational." 14 That kids know more than their parents or teachers about the Net is not surprising, since generations become successively more media savvy, but the fact is still unfortunate—at least for the parents and teachers. Statistics show that twenty-one percent of people over the age of 55 live in homes with computers, as compared to forty-nine percent of people between the ages of 35-44. Additionally, 8.8 percent of people over the age of 55, as compared to 24.7 percent of people between the ages of 35-44, have access to online service. 15

At the forefront of the senior scene is SeniorNet, a nonprofit organization that is the current target of research by the Institute for Research on Learning, the National Science Foundation, and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Traditionally, seniors who were do-nots were thought to be know-nots. Research on SeniorNet, although not yet conclusive, theorizes that seniors will access the Net if there are social reasons for them to do so. 16 Such social occasions might involve chat, online games, or other community features. Access to the Net for senior citizens, then, will require more than computer and Internet classes; instead, it will demand a change in the culture of the Net—or, at the very least, senior-friendly online communities. This situation is similar to that involving African-Americans, in that access to the Net requires more than the acquisition of equipment or knowledge.

Corporate Genius

Corporations are working hard to narrow the digital divide, which is not surprising; after all, the more people who own computers, the better the computer business. To narrow the divide, corporations are addressing have-nots, know-nots, and do-nots; in the process, corporations breed a culture of have-to-haves.

Wired Schools

The wiring of the nation’s classrooms to the Internet illustrates this corporate push and have-to-have effect. Because schools cannot afford the connections (thereby earning the status of have-nots), telecommunications companies, via "net days," are donating products and installing wiring systems. NetDay 1996 (March 9) resulted when John Gage, Chief Scientist at Sun Microsystems, and Michael Kaufman, Senior Director for

Digital Learning at PBS, took seriously President Clinton’s "Technology Literacy Challenge" and rallied volunteers and corporate donations. 17 The event wired 4,000 California schools; today, more than 140,000 of the nation’s schools have participated in various net days. 18 The plan seems noble, but the resulting momentum is debilitating for schools.

Since 1996, President Clinton and Vice-President Gore, via "The President’s Educational Technology Initiative," have continued the national agenda—or national fervor—to wire the nation’s classrooms by the year 2000. President Clinton announces that "this…effort…will take the same spirit and tenacity that built our railroads and highways," and Vice-President Gore affirms that "…we simply cannot sleep through this [computer] revolution." 19 In a series of speeches, President Clinton has urged America to participate in NetDay—which, through product advertisement both on and off the NetDay site, boosts sales for involved telecommunications companies—and has subsequently "asked" the Federal Communications Commission to establish the E-Rate. 20

The E-Rate, Section 254 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (part of the Universal Service Fund), is also known as the education rate and offers schools and libraries discounted rates on services from telecommunications companies. 21 While many teachers are unsure how to operate even the VCRs in their classrooms, while the jury is still out on the effects of computers in the classroom, while some schools do not have enough textbooks for each student or a respectable arts or physical education program due to inadequate funds, the purchase of discounted technology helps corporations—not schools.

In fact, the effect of NetDay and the E-Rate, despite both initiatives’ stipulations that schools create technology pre-plans, is school buildings filled with equal numbers of computers and bewildered teachers. The Center for Media Education reports:

Right now, nearly half of all teachers have had little or no experience with computers, and only a small minority have the training needed to integrate networked computers fully into classroom teaching. Only 18 states require training in technology for teachers seeking certification, and only 5 require technology as a subject of in-service training. Newly certified teachers make up only four percent of the total classroom workforce each year, and fully one-fourth of these will leave the field by the end of their second year. 22

In essence, schools become haves, while their educators remain know-nots.

Wireless Schools

Similar, absurd, have-to-have effects are demonstrated by the NII/SUPERNet initiative. After long debates, Apple Computer and the Wireless Information Networks Forum, Inc. (a trade association including such members as Apple, Lucent Technologies, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola) convinced the Federal Communications Commission that NII/SUPERNet, or wireless networks, would benefit schools. 23

Wireless connections cut costs and increase speed, but another advantage for which they are praised is their ability to wire schools previously unreachable due to asbestos problems. 24 This situation parallels comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s joke and observation that while laundry commercials advertise the effectiveness of detergent on eliminating blood stains, perhaps at that juncture effective laundry detergent is not the biggest problem! 25 Once again, corporations create an impulse to which the government responds in full-blown, have-to-have manner.

Portable Schools

Less systemic but equally disturbing is the recent celebration and resulting proliferation of the laptop.

Remember the commercial a few years ago, starring a businessperson lounging with a laptop at the beach, thus demonstrating the freedom that technology allows (or, if read differently, the dread that it effects, making business inescapable and vacation impossible)? Transport that commercial to today’s advertising world and the result is Microsoft’s "Anytime, Anywhere Learning" campaign, which hails the laptop as the great eraser of traditional boundaries: now, learning is not just for classrooms; learning is possible anytime and anywhere. 26 Similarly, Academic Notebook Systems, a reseller of Toshiba notebooks, offers at its site advertisements for laptop learning. 27

More unrelenting is Vtech Industries, a manufacturer of electronic educational toys for children. 28 The company sells several laptops for children, one designed for infants as young as six months. With product names such as "Smart Start Future" and "PreComputer Prestige," Vtech directly targets have-nots and drives forward the notion that laptops are a precursor to both intelligence and prestige. The latest product, designed for pre-teens, is the least expensive laptop on the market and is aptly titled "The Equalizer."

Note that the laptop itself is not a worry, but rather the unsubstantiated claims that it improves learning. There exists no definitive, non-commercial research about the improvement of education due to laptop use, and Family Education warns that "Schools have to be careful…businesses view school technology as a booming new market." 29 Nevertheless, the concept of the laptop is so powerful that select K-12 schools are requiring the purchase of a laptop by each student, and entire databases are available online for users to search for such "laptop schools" in the United States. 30 Schools, in typical have-to-have, know-not fashion, rapidly purchase technology without asking why.

The Party

Most effective at targeting the individual have-not and know-not is Apple Computer Corporation. The company asking people to "Think Different" has created a magnificent new campaign for the iMac encouraging people to do just the opposite. Jeff Goldblum, an actor appearing most recently in science or science-fiction films, now presents himself on screen as a bumbling character, a technology hopeful, a person interested in joining cyberspace but sympathetic with those not yet there. Following is a transcript from a commercial titled "E-Mail":

Seems like there’s a big party going on these days. Everybody’s going, ‘What’s your e-mail address? What’s your e-mail address? Hey, everybody! I’ll just e-mail you.’ I…I don’t have an e-mail. You feel left out. You’ve been confused. It’s too expensive or something. Well, now good news. There’s a computer so easy, ten minutes out of the box, you’re on the Internet, you’re e-mailing everyone, you’re part of the party. It’s as easy as licking a stamp. 31

This commercial speaks directly to know-nots by highlighting the simplistic nature of the iMac. Comparing the process to a more familiar form of communication (letter writing) and its technology (a stamp) brilliantly makes people feel at ease.

Another commercial, titled "Simplicity Shootout," demonstrates how a seven-year-old boy and a Stanford University MBA student can respectively assemble their iMac and HP Pavillion 8250 computers in roughly eight and twenty-seven minutes. Advertising copy states, "It’s high noon on the Internet—and a race to see who gets there first." 32 Again, the campaign underscores the iMac’s ease of use. More importantly, both commercials address have-nots, and, in the process, breed have-to-haves: join the party, win the race.

The success of the iMac campaign is well documented (and the campaign itself is well promoted: full-text transcripts and videos of the commercials are available on the iMac Web site). ZDNet reports that "the iMac, introduced on August 15 in the U.S. for $1,299, took 150,000 orders before a single machine was on a CompUSA shelf." 33 As for whether the have-not marketing was successful, preliminary research data from ComputerWare shows that nearly 15 percent of iMac buyers were first-time computer buyers. 34 The ultimate effect, as with any good campaign, is a population of have-to-haves. As a member of an iMac discussion list demonstrates:

I loved how this computer looks like. That's why I wanted to get it. Im [sic] not having any problems with my old PC but I think an iMAC would be a great one. I've read it's features and I think all in all it's really great. Do you think it's worth it? 35

Net Effects

The consumption of unneeded goods is rampant in America and is often unrelated to the technology market. What marks the have-to-have technology culture as more dangerous than, say, the have-to-have Beanie Baby culture, is the magnitude of the Net’s effect on personal lives.

Rick Smolan, creator of the Day in the Life series, orchestrated in 1996 the "24 hours in Cyberspace" photojournalism project. The book—and corresponding CD-ROM and Web site—reports ways in which the Internet is affecting society. Highlights included advances in medicine, communication, and business, as well as the sharing of international culture and world religion. Ultimately, the project attempted to "document the human side of technology." Human, indeed. 36

The Real, Virtual World

Access to as well as ability to use the Net mean access to a wealth of information and the ability to learn, experience, and grow. What was once too expensive (The New York Times), too daunting (the complete works of Shakespeare), too time-consuming (shopping), or too far-fetched (flying with NASA astronauts), is now accessible within seconds from the living room, thus making life a little bit easier, a little more manageable, and, in the case of the virtual shuttle, a lot more fun. Furthermore, the very notion that users can locate information themselves (say, without requiring a visit to the library) or perform services otherwise dependent on a third party (e.g., a salesperson) empowers and frees users, thereby offering a greater sense of control over the world.

Most interesting is the freedom that the Net allows users to be or become someone who they are not or cannot be in real space. In her seminal book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, Sherry Turkle examines the personas that surfers assume in such virtual communities as chat rooms and MUDs. For a shy or insecure person, a person grappling with identity issues, or even a person interested in experimenting with identities for the sake of fun, these forums permit the donning of masks for short periods of time, warranting users the luxury of anonymity or an altered identity. 37 Experiences such as these, which represent freedom and adventure for users, do not exist in real space. In-depth analysis, however, discloses disturbing elements of this virtual world, in that it is more consuming and real than at first notice.

Turkle’s interviews reveal striking similarities among various MUD inhabitants: loneliness, a need for escapism, and a change in real-life personality post-MUD entry. The plots are the same: "Carrie had troubles aplenty; she drank too much and had an abusive boyfriend. Carrie rejected…friendship…to talk to ‘the people in the machine’"; "Stewart habitually used work to ward off depression, but now…he turned to MUDs"; "In grade school and junior high Gordon wasn’t happy and he didn’t fit in. [He] discovered MUDs and saw another way to have a fresh start. When he changed his character he felt born again." 38 When interviewees admit to MUDding more than eighty hours per week (and, in one case, more than one hundred and twenty hours one week) and confess that "MUDding has ultimately made [them] feel worse about [themselves]," Turkle questions whether the virtual communities are therapeutic or just addictive. 39

So real do these virtual worlds become for their inhabitants that Stewart, mentioned above, states he "learned much of what he knows of politics and of the differences between American and European political and economic systems" through MUDding. 40 Similarly, while Robert stopped going to his college classes in lieu of MUDding, he took on responsibilities in cyberspace that mirrored those of a real-space, full-time job. He involved himself in the programming, managing, and politics of the MUD, and "he did it with elegance, diplomacy, and aplomb." 41

Further evidence of the enveloping power and real-world structure of MUDs is provided by the much-discussed rape of "exu" by "Mr. Bungle" on LambdaMOO, a MUD hosted by the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. In his article "A Rape in Cyberspace," Julian Dibbell recounts the virtual rape and its effects on both the victim and the MOO. Mr. Bungle, with the help of a "voodoo doll subprogram," was able to attribute actions to other characters in the MOO, thereby forcing the characters into non-consensual sexual acts. While skeptics have dismissed the case, so intense was the crime for the victim that the real-life "exu," a doctoral candidate who lives in Seattle, cried real-life tears. 42 Enveloped himself, Dibbell admits that "where before I’d found it hard to take virtual rape seriously, I now was finding it difficult to remember how I could ever not have taken it seriously." Mesmerized, Dibbell decides to "make a life there" (at LambdaMOO), which he recounts in his recent book My Tiny Life. 43 While a codified set of laws did not exist on LambdaMOO prior to the Bungle case, there is now an official system in place to take action against criminals. Created, then, is a virtual society, complete with the structure of a real society—citizens, criminals, and laws.

Virtual, Real World

Long-term effects of living in a real, virtual world are not yet known, though there is speculation that extended periods of time in virtual communities disassociates users from real life and ultimately creates a virtual, real world.

Urban historian M. Christine Boyer brings forth this hypothesis in her book CyberCities: Visual Perception in the Age of Electronic Communication. She maintains that as the cybercity becomes a substitute for the real city, humans will begin to feel disembodied—actualized by software programs instead of organs. 44 Boyer warns that "as we retreat into the privacy of our media-altered realms…the city no longer evokes…involvement; it has become numbed, speechless, without a story to tell." 45

Turkle substantiates Boyer’s theory of disembodiment when Turkle’s interviewees discuss "slippage" between real life and virtual life. As MUDders log on for eighty hours in a given week, what little time there is for experiencing the real world is colored by the virtual world’s experiences. She offers accounts from participants confused about "what’s happening on cyberspace and what’s happening [in real space]," illustrated best by Stewart, who responds affirmatively when asked whether he is married, even though his marriage took place on a MUD. 46

Turkle’s subjects confirm Boyer’s prediction that the real city will no longer evoke involvement: for Stewart, there is no need for a real-life marriage; for Robert, who has management responsibilities on the MUD, there is no need for a real-life job. Stewart and Robert are living, then, in a virtual, real world. Illustrating this notion artistically, Julian Dibbell’s chapters in My Tiny Life alternate between MUD commands and nonfiction prose—the former for his real life experiences, the latter for the account of LambdaMOO. 47

In the end, inhabitants of a virtual, real world are living in a "Technopoly," Neil Postman’s definition of a culture that has surrendered to technology. 48 While Stewart and Robert may not represent the average Internet user, the understanding of their behavior—the surrender of their lives to the Net—is critical for a have-to-have society.


Corporations are systematically and successfully targeting the digital divide’s have-nots and know-nots and are creating instead a population of have-to-haves, enthusiasts who know not why they purchase or use technology. If consumers do not think critically about technology or understand the power of the Internet, they surrender themselves to technology. In doing so, they allow the Internet to blur not the lines between race and age, but the lines between the virtual and the real.



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Dibbell, J. (1998). My Tiny Life. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Negroponte, N. (1995). Being Digital. New York: Vintage Books.

Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.

Tapscott, D. (1998). Growing up Digital: The rise of the net generation. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the Screen: Identity in the age of the internet. New York: Touchstone.

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1. Don Tapscott, Growing up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998), 255.

2. National Telecommunications and Information Administration, “Falling through the Net II: New Data on the Digital Divide,” 28 July 1998, <http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/net2/>, Section 3.

3. National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Chart 12. Note that NTIA adjusts its statistics proportionately to reflect U.S. population.

4. Project 2000, “Diversity on the Internet: The Relationship of Race to Access and Usage,” 24 October 1997, <http://www2000.ogsm.vanderbilt.edu/papers/aspen/diversity.on.the.internet.oct24.1997.html>, Section 3.

5. Leonce Gaiter, “Is the Web Too Cool for Blacks,” Salon Magazine, June 1997, <http://www.salonmagazine.com/june97/21st/cool970605.htm>>, Paragraph 16.

6. Cynthia Joyce, “Race Matters in Cyberspace Too,” Salon Magazine, June 1997, <http://www.salonmagazine.com/june97/21st/race970605.html>, Paragraphs 9 and 10. Note this secondary quote; no primary sources were evident.

7. NetNoir, <http://www.netnoir.com/>.

8. ZDNet, “Top 100 Web Sites,” PC Magazine, <http://www.zdnet.com/pcmag/special/web100/_atoz.htm>>.

9. Terry Sullivan and Krystyn Manning, “Could Helen Keller Read Your Page,” All Things Web, 15 August 1997, <http://www.pantos.org/atw/35412.html>.

10. Mike Britten, “web-ability,” Salon Magazine, May 1998, <http://www.salonmagazine.com/21st/feature/1998/05/05feature.html>, Page 2, Paragraph 5.

11. All Things Web, <http://www.pantos.org/atw/35412.html>.

12. WebABLE, <http://www.webable.com/>.

13. World Wide Web Consortium, Web Accessibility Initiative, <http://www.w3.org/WAI/>.

14. Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital. (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 6.

15. National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Charts 16 and 22.

16. SeniorNet, Research Page, <http://www.seniornet.org/nsf/intro.html>.

17. Sun Microsystems, NetDay96, <http://www.sun.com/961001/cover/march.html>.

18. NetDay, <http://www.netday.org>.

19. Whitehouse, President’s Educational Technology Initiative, Audio Files, <http://www.whitehouse.gov/edtech.html>.

20. Whitehouse, Transcript of Radio Address, 19 April 1997, <http://www.pub.whitehouse.gov/uri-res/I2R?urn:pdi://oma.eop.gov.us/1997/4/20/1.text.1>.

21. Federal Communications Commission, Universal Service, <http://www.fcc.gov/ccb/universal_service/welcome.html>.

22. Center for Media Education, “The Little wiRED Schoolhouse: Connecting Kids to the Information Superhighway,” 1996, <http://epn.org/cme/infoactive/fall96/fall96.html>, Paragraph 6.

23. James Brancheau, “U-NII, A Broadband Wireless Data Network,” 22 December 1998, <http://www.colorado.edu/infs/jcb/sinewave/network/u-nii/background.html>, Paragraph 1.

24. Benton Foundation and Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, ET Docket No. 96-102, <http://benton.org/Policy/96act/supr-ben.html>, Paragraph 5.

25. Jerry Seinfeld, “I’m Telling You for the Last Time.” (1998) Full text of the original joke: “Now they show you how detergents take out bloodstains, a pretty violent image there. I think if you've got a T-shirt with a bloodstain all over it, maybe laundry isn't your big problem.”

26. Microsoft Corporation, Anytime Anywhere Learning, <http://www.microsoft.com/education/k12/aal/>.

27. Academic Notebook Systems, <http://www.notebooksystems.com/linksite.htm>.

28. Vtech, <http://vtechinc.com>.

29. FamilyEducation, as per Mary Ann Zehr, “Partnering with the Public,” Education Week on the Web, 1997. <http://www.edweek.org/sreports/tc/public/pu-n.htm>, Page 2.

30. Academic Notebook Systems

31. iMac, Commercial, <http://www.apple.com/imac/theater/index.html>.

32. Ibid

33. Eric C. Fleming, “All Eyes on Apple: First Profit in Three Years,” ZDNet, 14 October 1998, http://www.zdnet.com/zdnn/stories/zdnn_smgraph_display/0,4436,2149298,00.html>, Paragraph 4.

34. Reuters, “Apple Set to Announce Profitable Year,” as published in TechWeb, 12 October 1998, <http://www.techweb.com/wire/finance/story/reuters/REU19981012S0001>, Paragraph 14.

35. Yjsobel Brennan, Macintosh News Network, 19 December 1998, <http://cgi.macnn.com/Forum4/HTML/000009.html>.

36. 24 Hours in Cyberspace, <http://www.cyber24.com/htm3/index2.html>. Note that Smolan also constructed the “24 Hours in Cyberspace: Student Underground” project and recently published One Digital Day, a photojournalist account of the effects of the microchip.

37. Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. (New York: Touchstone, 1995).

38. Ibid, 189, 199.

39. Ibid, 198, 201.

40. Ibid, 193.

41. Ibid, 201.

42. Julian Dibbell, “A Rape in Cyberspace.” <http://www.levity.com/julian/bungle.html>. Note that this version appears as Chapter One in My Tiny Life; a different version of the story appeared 23 December 1993 in The Village Voice.

43. Julian Dibbell, My Tiny Life. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998).

44. M. Christine Boyer, CyberCities: Visual Perception in the Age of Electronic Communication. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), 117.

45. Ibid, 119.

46. Turkle, 186, 205.

47. Dibbell, My Tiny Life.

48. Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. (New York: Vintage Books, 1993).