The Electronic Divide

At a recent staff meeting at the WMNF Radio station, News Director Rob Lorei expressed his concerns about the Internet. "I am just afraid we are going to become a society of Haves and Have-Nots!" he said. "Younger folks have been introduced to computers in school and have access to them there, but for a lot of us other folks, well..."Those two sentences touch on just a few of the issues at the forefront of Cyberspace. From the halls of congress to rural Polk County Schools, everyone is debating about the future of technology, and what it will hold.The biggest question: Will the Internet split society even further across economic, educational and even generational lines? Or is this just a lot of hot air, like the initial excitement over television's potential for social transformation?Several issues -- including access to computers, education, and control of online information -- underscore the conundrum facing society.LIBRARY TO THE WORLDIn a recent editorial, the Tampa Tribune argued against funding for computers and online access in libraries. "Much of what is available online is simply entertaining. Even if a case should be made that the poor who cannot afford computers ought to not to be shut out of the information age, how would librarians distinguish between those who cannot afford computers and those who simply want free computer time to amuse themselves?"The same argument could be made against offering fiction or video tapes at libraries, or providing entertainment on PBS."We're talking about something more than plain old TV," counters 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."Offering the full text of today's congressional register, instant news and even a live audio State of the Union address, the Internet is quite possibly the modern alternative to the public library. In the same way that libraries functioned to offer the poor access to the public discourse, cyber-savvy libraries and schools are being asked to offer access to the debate online.For individuals and institutions to get online, people must have computers. Generally speaking, poor people don't. The Have/Have-Not divide is already here as far as computer ownership is concerned. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 45.6 percent of households with an annual income of $75,000 or more owned computers, but only 4.8 percent of households with an annual income of $15,000 or less owned them. To help bridge this gap Gov. Chiles has proposed a new focus on funding for technology in schools."I would love to see some of it!" says Pam Walker, a school teacher in Polk County. When her school intercom announced a donated computer was up for grabs, it was claimed before the announcement was completed. "Poor schools are in desperate need for donated computers," says Walker. "We are low on the list. I have a feeling if you visited upper class schools there are probably computers in the classrooms. They are well funded by corporate sponsors. But our school is one third Hispanic, one third black low income."Hillsborough County has poor track record for funding technology in schools. Last fall residents voted down a proposed tax hike for schools. Among other things, it would have funded more than $200 million in improvements to the technological resources available to local students.Even assuming that schools offer computers to students, what happens once they graduate?"I am a used-to-have," laughs Dave Folta, a waiter in St. Petersburg Beach. "When I was in school I had it all, but now I can not afford a computer." Most computers today are still sold to high-income households.But those demographics are changing says Van Baker at Dataquest, a technology research firm. "The distribution of those who own computers is rapidly driving into the lower income levels. Meanwhile those in the upper income levels are buying a second PC for the home or replacing the one they have."A recent Time Magazine Special Report predicted "a vigorous secondhand market for computers. 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."Dewey Rundus, Associate Chair of Computer Science at USF, agrees that computer prices will fall. "If you get enough people buying it, it will become more affordable. Tvs and VCRs seem to be generally affordable." But he also points out, "A secondhand car will run on any highway, but not every computer will run on the Information Superhighway. Outdated equipment simply will not do the job. Furthermore, many information roads charge tolls, sometimes hefty ones, that effectively bar even those who manage to put together the price of a secondhand computer."Rundus says that libraries must be the focus of any efforts to maintain public access to the Internet. In his view, libraries need to take leadership roles in order to ensure that there will be public "space" in the emerging Internet community, building upon principles and beliefs that underlie the foundations of libraries.There are other places to put computers for common use. Sam Harsh, from the Boulder Community Network in Colorado, says the real key is to make computers available in public places. "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 installed 200 PCs in its many project buildings. Financed by federal grants and private donations, the machines give neighborhood residents access to government databases and job listings, E-mail and cyberspace's many wonders.The city of Santa Monica, California started a public electronic network, featuring 15 public-access terminals in places such as banks, community centers and even grocery stores. Anyone -- including the homeless -- can get 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.In Tampa Bay there's the SunCoast FreeNet, which offers Internet access and free e-mail to area residents. The non-profit National Public Telecomputing Network has a grant program to help other communities to do the same. Each grant winner will receive a "shrink-wrapped" Free-Net kit, including a computer, modems, software, money for installation and connections to the Internet -- virtually everything needed to bring a community computer online.Dennis Hoops, Director of NPTN's Rural Information Network, said "We are excited by the low-cost hardware/software platform we were able to put together. With it any rural community will be able to duplicate this same program for about $15,000 or less."Across the country, freenets and public computer centers are flourishing.INFORMATION APARTHEIDIn its argument against funding for online access in schools and libraries, the Tampa Tribune said "the majority who still lack direct access are not exactly enfeebled."That ignores a fact more evident every day: There's an entire marketplace of opportunity will be available online. Obviously some people will miss out.Why is access to the Internet going to be so important? Our nation is shifting from a manufacturing base to an information drive, and an entire economy is emerging that exists only online" In all these cases, the bottom line is the same," says David Kline, a critic with Wired magazine. "Value and wealth are being created primarily through management and manipulation of the information process, rather than through the traditional inputs of the last economic millennium, such as raw materials, land, labor, machinery or even capital."Mitch Kapor is co-founder of Lotus Development Corp. and now president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He 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."One recent study indicated that in 1995 a person who was able to use a computer earned 15 per cent more than someone in a similar job who could not."In less than a year we have seen the World Wide Web move from a depository for company billboards to a legitimate business tool that can increase worker productivity," said Dataquest Analyst Rick Spence. "Traditional information providers from newspaper and magazine publishers to news wires and market research providers are rethinking their business models as they move to Internet distribution and sale of their products and services."USF professor Steve Philippy says that a social "sorting out" is inevitable."Every recent (last 5000 years) technical or social revolution has generated opportunity for some and pain for others. Each revolution generated new 'classes' of economic and social winners and leaders." He believes the cyber-revolution will include a greater portion of the population than previous social reconfigurations.Last year House Speaker Newt Gingrich raised the idea of giving poor people tax credits to buy laptop computers. Even if this occurred, there would still remain the issue of access to the Internet and resources online for economic development.A recent survey of World Wide Web users, conducted by the Graphics, Visualization, & Usability Center at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, found that only 28 percent of Web users pay for their access personally. Most have access through a university or business. Personal access comes at a price.The situation is also complicated by the tendency of telecommunications companies to place the new information networks in more affluent communities, bypassing poorer rural and inner-city areas.Representative Ed Markey (D-Mass.) calls this separating-out process "information apartheid."A coalition of consumer, poverty and religious groups petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to ban what they labeled "electronic redlining," a term derived from the banking practice of refusing loans to people and businesses in low-income and blighted areas.Will there be two economies in the future? Software mogul (and America's richest man) Bill Gates envisions a future of labor for people who do not participate in the online economy. He told one reporter, "Until every city is beautiful, until you have every option for your leisure time with perfect service, there are jobs that need to be done." Such a service/information labor division, if it happened, would fall along educational lines.COLLECTIVE CONSCIOUSNESSJust like a library card or a stock report, access to online information does not necessarily mean having the ability to use it. Tools are useless without the knowledge to put them to work."People just don't know what's there, so they don't bother to look," said Nik McCrory of the Infohaus Cyber-cafe in Tampa Bay, Florida. "I see people come in here all of the time, sit down just out of curiosity, and then BANG! You see the light bulb go on in their head and they say 'Hey! There's really something going on here!'" McCrory believes that people don't invest in online access unless they understand what is available to them on the Internet.Russel Tewksbury operates an Internet consulting firm in Tampa. He believes that the have-nots are in most cases "self-imposed." "Computer power is relatively cheap," he says. It is simply a matter of priorities.The problem is, people would rather spend their money on a pizza or the movies instead of investing in an inexpensive computer. At least with the movie, people know what they are getting. "But the Internet offers the largest collection of information ever assembled," says Tewksbury. "It's the collective consciousness of humanity online."Pam Walker wants to know how she can teach her students about the Internet when she cannot even use her own computer skills in her classroom. The few computers her school does have are all preprogrammed with remedial reading lessons, and cannot even create documents or art."In my elementary education program they were teaching us how to make presentations, using multi-media. We would sit there with our mouths open watching everything that we could do. We went into labs and practiced, and when we get out here can we do it? I would have to go out and buy my own equipment. But on a teachers salary? You can forget it!"Steve Thompson, a library science graduate student at USF, said "It all boils down to priorities, money and the choices of the school boards. How technologically aware are the people on those school boards? Their decisions will be determining the economic viability of these students in the future."The dilemma is a national one. School boards are elected, and voters want small budgets for their schools. Some school officials say the defeat ensured a future of technology based not on equality for all students, but on what each school can afford.The San Jose Mercury News recently wrote, "In his State of the Union speech, President Clinton declared that 'every classroom in America must be connected to the information superhighway, with computers, good software and well-trained teachers' by the year 2000. It's a great idea, even a vital one for the future of the nation's kids and economy. But the huge unanswered question is, where will schools get the money to make good the president's vision?"As an online economy and society evolves around computers, the central issue persists. Who will learn to use them? David Kline says that the Internet will be truly useful only to those people who are trained to use it well. "People are absolutely necessary. But it is their knowledge -- and their ability to use information tools and to communicate that knowledge in a commercial form -- that matters, not the mere head count."THE NEW CENSORSHIPIn The Ascendancy of the Commons, Michael Hauben insists that the Internet will serve up true democracy: "The 26 year development of the Internet is an investment in making direct democracy a reality. On-line communication forums make possible the discussion necessary to identify today's fundamental questions. The effect is a discussion taking place in one time and place, while the participants can actually be dispersed. Current groups and mailing lists prove that citizens can both do their daily jobs and participate in discussions that interest them on their own time."There is a discussion forum on the Internet where people share ideas on the subject, many of them arcane and esoteric, some of them obscene. Like current headlines, new groups and discussions arise daily, even as old news gets tucked away into archives. Presently, there are no laws governing the content of materials on the Internet. Consequently, there has been a lot of attention put on pornography, national security, and the regulation of trade in cyberspace.The rapid growth of the Internet took everyone by surprise, Congress included. But the biggest surprise of all could be the new Telecommunications Law. The President signed this bill with digital ink amid globally televised hoopla.Al Gore was there and Lily Tomlin's Ernestine teleconferenced in to make everybody laugh. CNN reported that "this bill updates laws that were written back when there were only three networks."What CNN did not report was the serious threats to the First Amendment contained in the new law.The social implications of a part of the bill, "Broadcast Obscenity and Violence," worry Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, an Internet watchdog group. Along with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Society for Professional Journalists and others they have formed the First Amendment Project Coalition. It filed a suit against the new law an hour after it was signed.Why? The new law says the Internet is equivalent to a broadcast medium and would impose $100,000 fines and prison terms for anyone who posts any "indecent" material. The "seven dirty words," the text of classic works of fiction such as The Catcher In The Rye, or Ulysses, artwork containing images of nudes, rap lyrics, etc. would all be banned from a public forum.Moreover, whenever a publisher or editor reviews an article, it will have to be scrutinized for any possible "indecency" that would have First Amendment protection in their print publishing but be a federal felony if published in their electronic form.Few editors or publishers will tolerate two entirely different versions of articles; one for print, the other for their electronic copies.The group's lead attorney, James Wheaten, said, "Writers -- even those who themselves have no webpage and do not publish online, and in fact may not even have a computer -- will feel the sting of the radical right's censorship in everything they do."The Center for Democracy and Technology also strongly opposes the new rules. "We believe this proposal threatens the very existence of the Internet as a means for free expression, education, and political discourse. The proposal is an unwarranted, unconstitutional intrusion by the Federal government into the private lives of all Americans." The internet community was so upset by the legislation that web pages were colored black for two days, and an ongoing "Blue Ribbon" campaign continues to spread the word.Even without government regulations, the Internet is likely to develop restrictions on information as a natural part of its development. The idea behind "Intra-nets" is that people with like minds congregate in certain areas on the Internet. One of the great "net" benefits is the ability to find and communicate with people who share interests. So what if only two other people on earth are interested in the phlebotomy of lovebugs, and one is in Tanzania.With E-mail you may as well live next door to one another.This type of common interest group is one of the few organizing forces that have influenced the development of the Web. It can be seen in the early successes of "e-malls" like Prodigy -- subscription networks that offer a variety of on-line computer services, information and entertainment. By offering a customized suite of online services e-malls can attract a specific kind of client. Grouping information together also makes it easier to find things.As the "sum total of the collective consciousness," there is a lot of information to sort through. So when groups of people find they share common interests, they generate websites, gopher files, listservers, and a whole "Intra-net" of information common to their needs.So what does all of this have to do with haves vs. have nots? Look closely at the e-malls. They offer many things that can be found in other places on the net. But they also have a few exclusive databases, available only to those people who pay their tollbooth charges. Once "Intra-nets" become strengthened it could be a simple process to add a toll, or keep strangers out entirely.If you are not deemed acceptable by the gatekeeper -- access denied!In the interests of personal privacy, politics or corporate wealth, common interest groups could evolve into closed societies. Even with the computer, the connection, and the know-how, the citizen of tomorrow could still be a have not. A SEPARATE SOCIAL CLASS?"Depending on whose lie you believe, the penetration of PCs into homes is in the zone between 27 and 32 percent," said Dennis Dube, at Boulder's Apple Electronic Media Lab in Colorado. "One out of three, at best, homes have even equipment. And of those PCs, only a fraction even have modems. So the real number of homes that have the capability of having accounts is probably in the neighborhood of 12 to 14 percent of households."Just how many people decide to switch on the Web may determine the ultimate influence of the Internet on culture and society. Will the number of social and economic interactions online ever reach critical mass and create a separate social class?"I don't think so, I really don't," says Paul Chaney, chair of Information Systems at the USF College of Business. "I have people in my classes and friends in the community that use computers as a tool. But their lives don't revolve around it."A good example, says Chaney, is home banking with a PC. Some people will do it and some people will still go stand in line and cash the check. "They want to see the cash, have a receipt, or just enjoy dealing with real people. Some could do it easier, simpler, faster with their computer, but they are not going to do it."We will never become a checkless or cashless society, says Chaney. "Not everybody will want it. But it should be a matter of personal choice. People that cannot afford it at home should have access at the library, or even at a community center."Power and information have gone hand in hand throughout history. The information rich and information poor have been around for years. Like any new technology, the proliferation of the Internet will no doubt create unforeseen opportunities and unique barriers. And cyber-society will no doubt continue to mirror the culture of haves and have-nots that created it. Whether it can replace that culture altogether remains to be seen.

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