Is the Digital Divide Really a "Black Thang"?
Remember the book Chariots of the Gods? by Erich Von Daniken? Published in the early '70s, it was the first book to introduce the shocking theory that aliens had visited ancient Earth. Von Daniken supposedly unearthed thousand-year-old navigational charts, landing strips from ancient Egypt, and giant spaceports in the Andes. All interesting stuff, but mostly fantastic myths tied together by convenient coincidences.
The book was a million-copy seller and spawned a follow-up book and a TV special. That's when I knew that we are a nation in love with myths. We love to dissect, probe, and try to explain the seemingly unexplainable. We really enjoy promoting myths seen to have some socially redeemable value.
Which brings us to the myth du jour: the Digital Divide.
The Digital Divide is loosely defined as the disparity between those who have access to Internet technology and those who have not. In July of 1999, the U.S. Commerce Department released a report called "Falling through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide," which found that households with annual incomes of $75,000 or more were 20 times more likely to have Internet access and nine times more likely to have computers than families in the lowest income bracket. The term Digital Divide is now so commonplace that some people already consider it a cliché.
The report said nothing about whether upper-income families might also be more likely to have Subzero refrigerators, SUVs, diamond jewelry, and off-shore investments. The finding that grabbed the most headlines was that whites were more likely to have Internet access at home than African Americans or Hispanics were to have Internet access anywhere -- home, school, or work.
Politicians, community activists, and computer hardware and software companies quickly jumped on what they felt were the implications of this report. But complaints about blacks hopelessly falling behind might not be entirely based in fact. The stereotype of technophobic minority groups could discourage businesses or academics from creating content or services tailored for minority communities -- ultimately making the Digital Divide a self-fulfilling prophecy. Also, many see the debate over the digital divide as casting blacks in the proverbial role of victim, when this is far from the truth. The digital divide is far more about class than race, and depicting blacks as hopelessly behind might hurt African Americans, not help them. Certainly the latest numbers on technology use show that the Digital Divide cuts many different ways.
Instead of showing a predictable black-white gap, technology research reveals that Asian-Americans, not whites, have the highest Internet and computer use. And while blacks at most income levels lag behind whites and Asians, it's Latinos, not blacks, who are the least likely to be wired. But if I had a dollar for every time someone wailed about the Asian-Latino digital divide, I'd be broke.
The fact of the matter is that African Americans are going online in ever-increasing numbers, boosting their spending on computers and computer-related products by 143 percent in 2001, according to Target Market News. A recent report by the Joint Center for Political Studies found that there's little difference in Internet usage between upper- middle-class blacks and whites. And at the highest income levels -- above $90,000 annually -- blacks are more likely to be wired than whites. There are more than 6 million African Americans online, and with computer prices dropping to a little over $500, many of the poorest people are making sacrifices to get computers and online service. But for the Internet to be a true mass medium, it will have to achieve higher penetration among all consumer segments. The penetration numbers by even the more under-penetrated segments should encourage businesses that target online consumers with affinity programming strategies.
Also, niche Web sites such BET.com, Blackmississippi.com, and Rapstation.com primarily cater to African-American audiences. According to Robert Johnson, founder of BET, more minorities will embrace the Net as more targeted sites are built with their interests in mind.
The most alarming reaction to the "crisis" of the divide came from the United Nations. A panel of information-technology experts commissioned by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the United Nations should set a goal of allowing everyone in the world access to a computer and the Internet by 2005, even if they have to walk half a day to hook up with a mobile phone. If nothing is done, poorer nations could be permanently excluded from the Internet revolution, the experts warned. Given the larger challenges faced by developing nations -- such as AIDS, civil war, hunger, infant mortality, and inadequate medical resources -- somehow I don't see Internet access as being the number- one action item. The idea that people in Africa should be encouraged to walk a half-day to have an Internet experience is obscene
As long as the so-called digital divide sucks money and attention from the world's real problems, it is a dangerous myth. The digital divide is not a crisis. World hunger, wars, AIDS, and environmental decay are crises. When the Internet can solve those problems, maybe everyone needs to have a computer.
Robert Jackson Jr. is the president of Deep River Media, an Internet consulting company that focuses on marketing strategies for small- to medium-sized businesses.