Back To Readers' Contributions List
How Will The Internet Effect Lower Income Groups?
Access to the information highway may determine the basic ability to function in a democratic culture
By Suneel Ratan/Washington
If there was any lingering doubt that the computer has become ensconced as a member of the American family, it was dispelled at the turn of the year by some startling statistics. For the first time ever, consumers in 1994 bought $8 billion worth of PCs -- just a smidgen away from the $8.3 billion they spent on TVs. The sales record in terms of dollars is bound to fall to the computer soon, though the TV's cheaper price guarantees its dominion in numbers for a while yet.
In the nation's poorer areas, however -- places like Washington's Anacostia neighborhood, the hollows of Appalachia or Miami's Liberty City -- families with IBM Activas, NEC CD-ROM drives, modems, Internet connections and all the other paraphernalia so beloved by computer users are few and far between. Therein lies one of the most troubling aspects of the emerging information age. In an era in which success is increasingly identified with the ability to use computers and gain access to cyberspace, will the new technology only widen the gap between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, blacks, whites and Hispanics? As Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown puts it, "How do you create an environment so that once we've built this information infrastructure, you do not create a society of haves and have-nots?"
The stakes are high. Access to the information highway may prove to be less a question of privilege or position than one of the basic ability to function in a democratic society. It may determine how well people are educated, the kind of job they eventually get, how they are retrained if they lose their job, how much access they have to their government and how they will learn about the critical issues affecting them and the country. No less an expert than Mitch Kapor, co-founder of Lotus Development Corp. and now president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation,feels that those who do not have access "will be highly correlated with the general have-nots. Early in the next century, the network will become the major conduit through which we conduct our lives. Any disenfranchisement will be very severe."
The fact is that access to the new technology generally breaks down along traditional class lines. Wealthy and upper-middle-class families form the bulk of the 30% of American households that own computers. Similarly, wealthier school districts naturally tend to have equipment that is unavailable to poorer ones, and schools in the more affluent suburbs have twice as many computers per student as their less-well-funded urban counterparts. All this disparity comes to a head in this statistic: a working person who is able to use a computer earns 15% more than someone in a similar job who cannot.
The debate over how to handle the problem pits the freewheeling techno-cowboys of the computer and telecommunications industries against traditional advocates for the poor. The computer and telecommunications industries proclaim a paramount faith in market forces, at least partly because they fear eventual government regulation of access to the infobahn. As they see it, the forces of competition and the marketplace will drive the prices of equipment and online services downward and make both increasingly available to the less affluent.
There is considerable evidence to support that view. The newest computer models sport capabilities far beyond those of their predecessors and are priced lower; presumably, they will continue getting cheaper. Moreover, ever upgrading "heatseekers," who are constantly searching for the latest equipment, are bound to create a vigorous secondhand market. Machines that might otherwise be wasted are instead being sold into the used-computer market, where they can be snapped up by the less advantaged in the same way that poorer people buy used cars instead of new ones.
The problem, as advocates for the poor point out, is that all of today's information roads charge tolls, sometimes hefty ones, that effectively bar even many of those who manage to put together the price of a secondhand computer. The situation is further complicated by the tendency of telecommunications companies to place the new information networks in more affluent communities, bypassing, at least for the moment, poorer rural and inner-city areas. Representative Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, calls this separating-out process "information apartheid." A coalition of consumer, poverty and religious groups last May petitioned the Federal Communications Commission -- which has not yet acted on the matter -- to ban what they labeled "electronic redlining," a term derived from the banking practice of refusing loans to people and businesses in areas considered ghettos. "We're talking about something more than plain old TV," says Jeff Chester of the Center for Media Education, a liberal advocacy group. "We're talking about access to the central nervous system of our democracy."
Ensuring that broadband networks are rolled out to inner cities and rural areas at the same time as they are to affluent suburbs would by no means solve all the problems. There is the question of how the undereducated would be able to learn to operate computers -- even if they could afford to buy them. M.I.T. Media Laboratory director Nicholas Negroponte argues that the growing pervasiveness of computers in schools and homes, coupled with the increasing ease of computer use, will eventually dispel the techno-illiteracy that haunts the information have-not. Negroponte may be correct, but the transition to widespread computer literacy could easily take 20 or 30 years.
Another part of the debate, now being waged in Washington, is how to expand the 60-year-old concept of universal telephone service to emerging high-speed information services. Part of the problem is that at least 7 million American homes, most of them poor, do not even have the phones that could provide basic access. It is difficult to see people who lack such a necessity of modern American life going out and buying a computer. In January, House Speaker Newt Gingrich raised the idea of giving poor people tax credits to buy laptop computers, but in an era in which middle- and upper-middle-class Americans seem intent on cutting benefits for the poor, meaningful Net-access subsidies seem unlikely.
Yet the information industry is moving so fast that government officials are reluctant to intervene in any way that might slow its dynamism. In a search for creative ways to lessen the technology gap, advocates of wider access are focusing on plans to put computers and Net connections into libraries, post offices and other public places around the country to serve those who do not have home computers.
Many of the early approaches are local and small scale, but they may point the way to the future. New York City's United Community Organization, an umbrella group of neighborhood settlement houses, in February began installing in its project buildings 200 PCs with ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) connections to the Internet. Financed by $1.4 million in federal grants and private donations, the machines help the settlement-house staffs coordinate their work and give neighborhood residents the opportunity to cruise the highway, have access to government databases, exchange E-mail and otherwise sample cyberspace's many wonders. The city of Santa Monica, California, has started a public electronic network, installing 15 public-access terminals in places such as banks, community centers and even grocery stores. Anyone who wants to -- including the homeless -- can get online information about city services, make E-mail connections to city officials and local members of Congress and join discussion groups about contentious local issues like rent control and homelessness.
Mark Cooper, research director of the Consumer Federation of America, argues that there are no panaceas for national concerns about the gap between the information haves and have-nots. Nor, he believes, will eventual computer literacy and Net access do much to end the blight of poverty, illegitimacy, rural isolation and urban decay. "There's always going to be an unequal distribution of income," Cooper says. That's probably true, but at the very least, the new technology should unleash all its considerable energies toward the goal of preventing those problems from getting any worse.
Copyright 1995 Time Inc. All rights reserved.
| Issues | Visitors Material | Media Articles | Interactive |
| Success Stories | Voices | Links | Welcome Page |
Email Web Maintainer