InformationWeek, May 8, 2000, page 262.
The Big Picture:
Closing The Digital Divide
Efforts are going on worldwide to empower technology have-nots. But there's a potential dark side to some of this activity
By Leon A. KappelmanThe "digital divide," that separation between technology haves and have-nots, is a complex global concern. The divide isn't just about having hardware, software, and Internet access, but also about knowing how to use these basic tools of the information age. Such digital gaps exist not only within countries, but also among communities within countries and even within specific communities.
According to a study from National Public Radio and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, the digital divide in U.S. homes is largely a function of income--but at low income levels, some racial differences exist as well.
It's not surprising that money is a major cause of the digital divide, because the costs of technology tools account for a greater percentage of total income for those at lower income levels. For example, according to the United Nations Development Program a computer costs the average American about one month's wages--but about 96 months' wages for the average Bangladeshi. So it's not surprising that more than half of North Americans and one-third of Europeans have Internet access, while fewer than 3% of the 500 million people in Latin American and the Caribbean do.
Closing the digital divide is one of the new century's hottest global causes, with countless efforts going on around the world. That's good news, because access to information can be a remarkably empowering phenomenon--both economically and politically.
Of course, not every government wants its citizens to be empowered, especially when it comes to politics, so there are political digital divides in countries such as China, Malaysia, Russia, and Ukraine. Fortunately, there are far more efforts around the world aimed at closing digital divides. These initiatives take many forms, including charity, subsidization, and public-private partnerships.
Among the not-for-profits are high-tech names such as the Gates, AT&T, Waitt, and AOL foundations, as well as the Hispanic Federation, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Asian American Federation, YMCA, YWCA, NAACP, and the American Library Association. Corporate donors include Applied Materials, Bell Atlantic, Cable & Wireless, Cisco, Gateway, Microsoft, Novell, People PC, Qualcomm, SBC, 3Com, and US West. Government programs include Singapore's three-year plan to put every citizen online with hardware, software, access, and training, as well as less-ambitious public-private partnerships involving the likes of the New York City public schools, the FCC, U.S. Navy, Job Corps, AmeriCorps, the Navajo Nation, the Organization of American States, the European Union, the World Bank, the UN, and the city of La Grange, Ga.
Public-private partnerships are obviously desirable, and are another example of the blurring of boundaries that we find so common in these tech-driven times ("Working In The Global Village"). But there's a potential dark side to some of this seemingly positive activity. In a sense it's reminiscent--and sometimes a direct result--of the public-private cooperation that helped keep year 2000 problems to a minimum. But the same kinds of forces that led to the hype, misinformation, and political favoritism that put a dark cloud over Y2K are trying to cast a shadow on efforts to close the digital divide.
Such shenanigans are often part of a zero-sum game called "government revenue." In other words, the money has to come from somewhere. So the billions of dollars in tax incentives that will allow high-tech companies to take $2 in tax deductions for every dollar in digital-divide donations will come, in one way or another, from the rest of us.
The obvious fact is that it's cheaper for the rest of us to let Uncle Sam spend our tax dollars directly to close the divide rather than use tax subsidies to pay twice the cost for rich companies to help us close it. If I donate $1 to charity, I get a $1 tax deduction; why should a high-tech company get to deduct $2? And though I'm a stockholder in practically every public company that will benefit from this corporate welfare dressed in charity clothing, they don't need government subsidies, and I prefer capitalism to pseudosocialism.
Most important, these high-stakes, fast-paced, boundary-blurring, technology-intense times demand high standards of ethical and moral behavior from our public and private leaders. I hope they can rise to the challenge.
Leon A. Kappelman is a professor and the associate director of the Center for Quality and Productivity at the University of North Texas. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Please Note: This article first appeared in InformationWeek, May 8, 2000, page 262.)
Copyright ® 2000 CMP Media Inc.