Why hasn't everybody gone surfing in the USA?

Digital Nation

May 6, 2005

Concerns about a "digital divide" have been with us for just about as long as the internet. Many net pioneers worried as much about how already underprivileged populations would gain access to cyberspace as they did about designing the best protocols. To be sure, an arrogant libertarian strand of thinking has been around, too. In answer to someone's glib claim that the market would solve everything, a spokesman at the 1994 Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference pointed out that it was absurd to assume that everyone could become computer literate when a fifth of Americans could not read a bus schedule.

Anthony G. Wilhelm backs up this long-running discussion with facts, figures and solid argument. His book is certainly well timed. The economic gap between rich and poor is growing, as is the educational gap that determines what kind of jobs are available to individuals as well as the likelihood that they will have online access. With governments all over the world aiming to bring essential services online to cut costs and streamline processes, the need to address the divide is urgent. The people most likely to need those government services are, at the same time, the least likely to be able to use them if they are made available online.

That the digital divide is not narrowing reflects a grim truth: since the dot-com bust, funding for outreach projects to bridge the divide has shrunk, at least in the US. Bush Administration policies are cutting social programmes, corporations have less money available and the stock they might use instead has declined in value. Meanwhile, new uses of technology, such as internet voting, disproportionately favour the already enfranchised.

Wilhelm pays more attention to the rest of the world than most American authors: he mentions initiatives across the world in drawing his argument together. Nevertheless, there are strange gaps. For example: he refers several times to www.notschool.net, an online pilot project intended to help people who have left school at a very young age to educate themselves.

However, as far as one can tell from the website, the pilot ended in 2001 and has not been extended, although one of the partners in that site, Ultralab, is offering an online third-level degree programme.

In his discussion of virtual education, Wilhelm does not mention the very significant work of the Open University. Also left out is the controversy in the US over the 2003 law tying universal access "e-rate" funding for libraries to filtering software, which selectively penalises the already disadvantaged, since they depend most heavily on public access through libraries.

Wilhelm's research seems dated: it draws on material from 2003 and earlier.

Even given the long lead times in book publishing, it is hard to understand why he quotes figures from 2001 for, say, home internet access across races in the US. Surely there have been updates since then by, for example, the well-known authority, Pew Internet & American Life Project. Pew's 2003 report makes it clear - again - that internet access depends heavily on income and education, although it is still true that African-Americans of the same educational level are less likely to go online than Hispanics or whites.

Wilhelm's key argument, however, is well supported: that for the underprivileged not to be marginalised further, we need public policies supporting universal access. Those policies must include making websites accessible for those with disabilities and ensuring that government programmes are designed to reach the people who most need them. Ultimately, these are not technological problems but social ones.

Wendy Grossman is a freelance technology writer and author of net.wars and From Anarchy to Power: The Net Comes of Age .

Digital Nation: Toward an Inclusive Information Society

Author - Anthony G. Wilhelm
Publisher - MIT Press
Pages - 161
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 0 262 23238 3

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