A PC in Every Pot

These days it seems like everyone has a plan for closing the “digital divide.” Bill Clinton proposed $2 billion to help subsidize PCs for the 45 percent of American households without them. Ford Motors and Delta Airlines are giving employees access to cheap PCs and unlimited Internet usage.

With the high-profile political urgency given to this issue, you’d think that home access to a PC and the Internet should have been added to the Declaration of Independence as an unalienable right: “…that among these are Life, Liberty, the pursuit of Happiness, and a Hotmail account.”

There’s no question that PCs and the Internet are rewriting the rules for doing business. Few would also dispute that they have been the primary fuel for America’s runaway economic engine of the past decade. But any truth about a digital divide is clouded by election-year campaign rhetoric and distorted out of proportion by Internet industry ethnocentrism.

Two major factors are fueling the Internet industry’s contribution to this distortion:

  • It’s a common phenomenon for people to overestimate the importance of their professions and industries to society at large.
  • An industry regarded with greater societal importance perpetuates its need and, in most cases, stands to make a lot more money.

An Apple for the Teacher, a Dell for Every Student

This latest round of PC/Internet industry self-importance is the logical extension of its previous manifestation: the campaign to connect all our nation’s schools to the Internet through programs such as NetDay.

Volunteer contributors of skills and equipment to this cause may have had some level of self-interest by promoting their businesses and professions. But in many cases, this was secondary to their commendable efforts to better our nation’s schools.

Yet the most misguided element of this effort wasn’t in encouraging computer consumerism and brand preferences in our children. It was that few ever questioned the impact, if any, that computers and the Internet would have on the quality of education.

In the post-Sesame Street. world of Greg and Emily’s primary education, educators claimed that television in our schools would be an academic boon for students. After twenty-five years of lagging SAT scores, no one believes this anymore. Similarly, in the shorter timeframe that computers have entered the classroom, test scores continue to fall behind those of our global counterparts.

Do any parents really believe their children will become better students of English or math simply because there’s a computer with Internet access in the classroom? Instead, most parents equate computers and the Internet with their children’s success because they foresee related skills as a ticket to good employment – and not because of their impact on fundamental education.

This converts the mission of our educational system from one of learning to one of job training. During the industrial revolution, should we have been making the same fuss over welding masks and riveting equipment in our schools?

Hey! What’s the Big Idea?

Another mistake is the ethnocentric belief that the Internet appeals to universal needs and interests and should thus be ubiquitous.

The Internet was conceived and developed in a culture of white, mostly West Coast, libertarian computer scientists. As such, it is an idea built on biased notions of openness, contribution, anonymity, and individual freedom. For those who don’t quite buy into these ideas, the Internet’s appeal is a much tougher sell.

For example, large segments of Black America have spent the past several decades trying to overcome racial discrimination and oppression through unity. Go online and they are told, quite tritely, that on the Internet race is irrelevant and everyone happily does their own thing in the privacy of their homes.

And while many Americans will proudly broadcast things about themselves on their T-shirts, car bumpers, and free home pages, the appeal is lost on the many Asian cultures that value social conformity over individualism.

The arguments against Internet ubiquity extend beyond racial and cultural differences. Despite our both being recent expatriates of the Silicon Valley (where “diversity” means owning a Macintosh), we still don’t buy into the idea of instant messaging (or IM). While millions are attracted by IM’s immediacy, our workdays are already too prone to interruption to make IM anything more than an annoyance.

It’s the Poverty, Stupid

Of course, the causes for any digital divide are primarily economic. This certainly explains the emphasis on subsidies. But the motives for some of these subsidies are questionable. For every argument to bring information access and job training into needy homes, there are profit motives to extend e-commerce markets to more low-income families.

Companies targeting government and corporate programs for increased PC penetration, such as PeoplePC, are admittedly basing their business models on profits from e-commerce commissions while they break even on subscription fees. (Just don’t ask them how a low-income family without a credit card is going to pay for anything online.) How different is this from suggesting that everyone should have a television in their home?

Regardless of the motivations behind these subsidies, they address only the symptoms, and not the root cause, of the digital divide problem – poverty. In the war against poverty, where does a home PC rank among access to health care, affordable child care, quality schools, low-interest loans, low-income housing, and local jobs with higher wages?

Such misguided charity reminds Greg of a car breakdown that once led him to one of the poorer Navajo Indian villages in eastern Arizona. Noting the children playing among numerous new washing machines and dryers that stood outside of residential wood-and-mud hogans, Greg learned that government programs helped provide the modern appliances. Unfortunately, no one checked to see if the residences had electricity.

Error 404: Life Not Found

The overly simplistic notion that economic ills will be solved through ubiquitous Internet access is also one of the things that annoys us most about Cisco‘s patronizing TV ad campaign.

You’ve probably seen these spots – where Cisco apparently recruited parking garage attendants at its San Jose offices to pose as third-world beneficiaries of CARE. We learn that “in the future” there will be no paper money, training for all jobs will be online, and cellulite will be eradicated – all thanks to an Internet that runs on Cisco Systems.

Of course, no one bothers to mention that “in the future” no one will leave their swivel chairs, carpal tunnel syndrome will become a worldwide epidemic at Internet sweatshops, and pre-school children will have access to more porn and child marketing than they will ever need.

“Are you ready?” Cisco’s shareholders certainly are. If we’re truly serious about bridging the digital divide, we must set aside selfish interests and collectively address these greater social ills. Just as business and e-business are becoming indistinguishable, e-poverty is still poverty.

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