For some Americans, the ‘information revolution’ has transformed life radically. Yet for others the new technology and the ‘new economy’ it has helped to set in motion have only created a new dividing line between the information “haves” and “have-nots.”
In fact, US census data and sociological studies indicate that few of the poor in America’s society enjoy the empowerment that comes with access to the new technology. In the words of Michael Holtzman, chairman of the Next Generation Institute, a thinktank devoted to researching issues of importance to younger Americans, the digital divide in America is helping to breed a “techno-underclass.”
A study conducted by Market Intelligence, a research institute based in California, has confirmed that 80 percent of households with incomes of over $100,000 per annum own personal computers, compared to a mere 25 percent of households with annual incomes of less than $30,000. Likewise, a recent report by the US Commerce Department, Falling Through the Net, shows that the digital divide is continuing to widen, particularly along racial lines. Black and Hispanic households are approximately one-third as likely to have Internet access at home as households of Asian or Pacific Islander descent. Moreover, White households are more than twice as likely (41 percent) to own a home computer than Black ones (20 percent).
Parallel trends can also be found when examining the pattern of access to the telephone service. While 94 percent of American households have telephones, only 54 percent of households living on welfare and 50 percent of female-headed households living at or below the poverty line have telephones. For Blacks and Hispanics, access to telephones drops by about 10 percent even when income is taken into account.
Even in Silicon Valley, which has become synonymous with the information revolution, the epic boom of the new economy has not reached everyone. In East Palo Alto, a low-income area abutting the corporate headquarters of multimillion-dollar information technology (IT) companies such as Yahoo and Oracle, about one-fifth of the inhabitants live in poverty and fewer than one family in five has access to a computer in the home.
The digital divide in America also follows rural-urban lines. Those living in urban areas are more than twice as likely to have Internet access as those living in rural areas, according to the US Commerce Department’s report. Even in the urban centres the diffusion of technology has been highly uneven. Whereas middle-class and wealthy communities are entering a new technological era, the poor of the inner-cities have been slow in approaching the previous cycle. While urban households in wealthy and opulent urban neighbourhoods are swiftly acquiring top-of-the-line home computers, inner-city households have little exposure even to earlier-generation tools, such as laser scanners at supermarkets and bank automatic tellers.
In a society whose corporate culture is dominated by materialism and the profit motive, such a state of affairs is not the outcome of premeditated and deliberate choices made by the poor. Telecommunications investments, especially by cable and telephone companies, are focused on affluent neighbourhoods and suburbs, to the neglect of systems in inner-city neighbourhoods. The lack of adequate telecommunications facilities leaves the low-income communities without the proper infrastructure to get “wired” to the Information Age. It also feeds a spiral of poverty whereby the lack of investment leads to fewer economic and employment opportunities at the community level, thereby making these neighbourhoods less attractive to businesses.
In addition, the new information technologies, such as e-mail, video conferencing, facsimile- machines and computer networks, are also facilitating an exodus of jobs from the cities to the suburbs and beyond. Financial and industrial institutions, such as banks, insurance companies and factories, are beginning to take advantage of new technologies in their efforts to consolidate operations and set up “back-room facilities” in the suburbs; they tend to eliminate downtown jobs in the process. But most of the low-skilled poor are concentrated in the inner cities rather than the suburbs, and public-transportation systems in the urban areas rarely connect the two.
Rural areas, however, do not benefit from the relocation of job opportunities outside the cities. In a report whose title is Rural America at the Crossroads: Networking for the Future, the Office of Technology Assessment noted that, “Unlike routine manufacturing industries that migrated to rural areas in search of lower production costs, today’s high-technology industries are attracted by a highly skilled workforce and communications networks to other economic markets and information centers. These are precisely what rural areas lack.”
Government initiatives ostensibly designed to respond to information inequities have proved ineffective, such as the federal Title I program, aimed at bridging the information gap by assisting poorer schools to obtain computers and software. In a report issued in 1997, the Educational Testing Service said that the national ratio of students per classroom computer is 10 to 1. In schools with a low-income student enrolment of 90 percent or more, the ratio is about 30 to 1, whereas the ratio is 22 to 1 in schools with low-income student enrolment of between 24 and 49 percent. The US Department of Education recommends a ratio of 5 to 1.
The exclusion of America’s poor from the benefits of new technology undermines their prospects for political mobility as well as social and economic advancement. Computers and networked information increasingly pervade American society, from personal communication and entertainment to banking, business shopping and political participation.
The digital divide in America is taking a toll on relations between individuals and government, and on patterns of civic involvement. According to the Office of Management and Budget, 75 percent of all transactions between individuals and the government, including services designed to help the poor, such as delivery of food stamps, social-security benefits and Medicaid information, will soon all be conducted electronically. Access to communications technologies can also facilitate coordination and foster collective action on the part of issue-oriented associations that poor people form to deal with specific problems such as unemployment, drug abuse, crime, poor street maintenance, environmental threats and inferior healthcare and education. The Internet enables individuals and organizations to get information and updates on pending legislation and government-funding opportunities. The technology gap thus deprives these communities of potential “social capital” that they should be able to use to deal more effectively with their problems.
The personal computer has been described as “the great equalizer,” having the ability to help those with access to the technology to break traditional monopolies on information and knowledge, thus disrupting societal hierarchies and empowering the ordinary people. But the technological promise of benefits from access to computers and the Internet will remain unfulfilled as long as information inequities between the rich and poor persist. As long as the technological abundance unleashed by the marriage of computers and communications networks does not ‘trickle down’, poor Americans will remain excluded from the benefits of the Information Age that their wealthier neighbours are enjoying.