Decoding the Digital Divide

I was reading The Wall Street Journal one Friday not too long ago when I came across a headline referring to Hurricane Floyd: “Floyd May Leave Robust Economy in Its Wake.”

The article cites research about the economic activity following another powerful storm, Hurricane Andrew. One quote from the article will have to suffice: “Despite property damage and unproductive hours in emergency shelters, rebuilding and replacement of goods apparently helped buoy the local economies.”

I am reminded of my father’s dark quip: “So how was the rest of the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”

Given this preface, you may understand my bafflement and cynicism regarding a new catch phrase, “the digital divide.” Haven’t heard of it? The digital divide refers to the (growing) gap between those of us who have (unlimited) web access and those who have no access at all.

One recent network evening news program highlighted the divide by discussing the federal government’s “e-Rate” program, which subsidizes the “wiring” of America’s schools. The report then went on to feature a Navajo Indian family whose home, until a year ago, did not even have electricity and to this day lacks a telephone.

Which, in typical roundabout manner, brings me to my problem with the whole concept of a digital divide.

There’s little question that I am more privileged than Navajo Indians – and the citizens of whole countries, for that matter. Web access, though, is only part – and a very small part – of that nicely wrapped package of privileges.

There is a divide in our country, and between our country and the vast majority of others. I am not qualified to assay it or even to speculate intelligently as to its causes. Some days, it seems like a yawning maw that will swallow us whole with resentment and hopelessness and ignorance (with its hidden word: “ignore”) and a kind of material stupor. Other days, better days, I think I see tentative rope bridges swaying across the span.

But to say that this divide is digital is a curious bit of reductionism. It’s the poverty, stupid. (Oh, I forgot, we’re not supposed to mention poverty anymore. As a subject of serious discourse, it’s out of favor; if one is to bring it up at all, it must only be in the context of ranting against failed government programs.)

When I hear “the digital divide,” I hear the makings of a good applause line in a candidate’s speech. Even I might applaud. At least, I can argue, it appeals to a spirit of inclusiveness and sharing. And, Lord knows, that’s a tough sell these days.

Should it appear that my sentiments are proof that no good deed goes unpunished, let me be clear. If this is all we have in the way of creative endeavors to offer the Navajos or any other of our “displacees,” then, of course, let’s at least do this.

Perhaps I’ve mastered the individual notes, but missed the music. Is this, in reality, a kind of munificent Trojan Horse? We start with technological infrastructure and we follow with better, more substantive help. If so, count me in.

But beneath its attractive assonance – tailor-made for stump speeches – this digital divide hides worms and scorpions. Is this our only way of being able to look – and sideways at that – at human beings pushed to the margins? Can we be so in the thrall of technology that we seriously believe web access alone is enough to bring everyone to the table of plenty?

Let them eat modems.

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