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I left journalism last year and started working for an Internet development firm because I was scared. While many of my crypto-Luddite friends ("I find e-mail so impersonal") have decided that the Web is the work of the devil and is being monitored by the NSA, CIA, FBI, and the IRS, I began to have horrible dreams that sixteen-year-old punks were going to take over publishing in the next century because they knew how to write good computer code. I'd have to answer to some kid with two earrings, who will make fun of me because I have one earring and didn't study computer science in my spare time.

You laugh, but one of the best web developers in the country is a teenager who has written a very sound book on web design and programming. He's still in his prime learning years, and he's got a staff.

What should worry me more is that I am one of the few African Americans in this country who has a computer at home, uses one at work, and can use a lot of different kinds of software on multiple platforms. According to those in the know, I'm going to remain part of that very small group for quite some time.

The journal Science published a study on April 17 which found that, in households with annual incomes below $40,000, whites were six times more likely than blacks to have used the World Wide Web in the last week. Low-income white households were twice as likely to have a home computer as low-income black homes. Even as computers become more central to our society, minorities are falling through the Net.

The situation is actually considerably worse than the editors of Science made it seem. Some 18 percent of African American households don't even have phones, as Philip Bereano, a professor of technical communications at the University of Washington, pointed out in a letter to The New York Times. Since the researchers who published their study in Science relied on a telephone survey to gather their data, Bereano explains, the study was skewed--it only included people who had at least caught up to the Twentieth Century.

About 30 percent of American homes have computers, with the bulk of those users being predominantly white, upper-middle-class households. Minorities are much worse off: Only about 15 percent have a terminal at home.

The gulf between technological haves and have-nots is the difference between living the good life and surviving in what many technologists and social critics term a "cyberghetto." Professor Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at City University of New York, wrote in his book Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the Twenty-first Century, of the emergence of "information ghettos."

"The fact is, each time society made an abrupt leap to a new level of production, there were losers and winners," Kaku wrote. "It,may well be that the computer revolution will exacerbate the existing fault lines of society."

The term "cyberghetto" suggests that minorities have barely passable equipment to participate in tech culture. But most minorities aren't even doing that well.

Before everybody goes "duh," just think what this means down the line. Government officials are using the Web more often to disseminate information. Political parties are holding major on-line events. And companies are using the Web for making job announcements and collecting resumes. Classes, especially continuing-education classes, are being offered more and more on the Web. In politics, commerce, and education, the web is leaving minorities behind.

The disparity between the techno-rich and techno-poor comes to a head with this statistic: A person who is able to use a computer at work earns 15 percent more than someone in the same position who lacks computer skills.

"The equitable distribution of technology has always been the real moral issue about computers," Jon Katz, who writes the "Rants and Raves" column for Wired online, wrote in a recent e-mail. "The poor can't afford them. Thus they will be shut out of the booming hi-tech job market and forced to do the culture's menial jobs."

This technological gap, not Internet pornography, should be the public's main concern with the Web.

"Politicians and journalists have suggested frightening parents into limiting children's access to the Internet, but the fact is they have profoundly screwed the poor, who need access to this technology if they are to compete and prosper," Katz said. "I think the culture avoids the complex and expensive issues by focusing on the silly ones. In twenty-five years, when the underclass wakes up to discover it is doing all the muscle jobs while everybody else is in neat, clean offices with high-paying jobs, they'll go berserk. We don't want to spend the money to avoid this problem, so we worry about Johnny going to the Playboy web site. It's sick."

In his 1996 State of the Union address, President Clinton challenged Congress to hook up schools to the Internet.

"We are working with the telecommunications industry, educators, and parents to connect . . . every classroom and every library in the entire United States by the year 2000," Clinton said. "I ask Congress to support this educational technology initiative so that we can make sure the national partnership succeeds."

The national average is approximately ten students for every one computer in the public schools. According to a study by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., the President's plan--a ratio of one computer to every five students--would cost approximately $11 billion per year over the next ten years.

Some government and business leaders, worried about a technologically illiterate work force in the twenty-first century, recognize the need for increased spending. "AT&T and the Commerce Department have suggested wiring up schools at a 4:1 ratio for $6 or $7 billion," says Katz.

But according to the U.S. Department of Education, only 1.3 percent of elementary and secondary education expenditures are allocated to technology. That figure would have to be increased to 3.9 percent. Given the tightness of urban school district budgets, a tripling of expenditures seems unlikely.

Then there's the question of whether computers in the schools are even desirable. Writer Todd Oppenheimer, in a July 1997 article for Atlantic Monthly entitled "The Computer Delusion," argued that there is no hard evidence that computers in the classroom enhance learning. In fact, he took the opposite tack: that computers are partially responsible for the decline of education.

Proponents of computers in the classroom struck back. "On the issue of whether or not technology can benefit education, the good news is that it is not--nor should be--an all-or-nothing proposition," writes Wendy Richard Bollentin, editor of OnTheInternet magazine, in an essay for Educom Review.

There is an unreal quality about this debate, though, since computer literacy is an indispensable part of the education process for many affluent, white schoolchildren.

Consumers are beginning to see a decline in prices for home computers. Several PC manufacturers have already introduced sub-$1,000 systems, and there is talk of $600 systems appearing on the market by the fall. Oracle has spent a great deal of money on Network Computers, cheap hardware where software and files are located on large networks. The price is in the sub-$300 range. And, of course, there is WebTV, which allows you to browse on a regular home television set with special hardware.

Despite the trend to more "affordable" computers, a Markle Foundation-Bellcore Labs study shows that this may not be enough to help minorities merge onto the Information Superhighway. There is "evidence of a digital divide," the study said, with "Internet users being generally wealthier and more highly educated, and blacks and Hispanics disproportionately unaware of the Internet."

So, what now?

"For every black family to become empowered, they need to have computers," journalist Tony Brown told the Detroit News. "There is no way the black community is going to catch up with white society under the current system. But with a computer, you can take any person from poverty to the middle class."

This is the general line for enlightened blacks and community leaders. But having a computer won't bridge the racial and economic divide. Even if there is a 1:1 ratio of students to computers in urban schools, will students' interest be piqued when they don't have access to computers at home? One out of every forty-nine computer-science professors in the United States is black. Will this inhibit black students from learning how to use them? And even if every black student had a computer at home and at school, would that obliterate all racial obstacles to success?

Empowerment is not just a question of being able to find your way around the Web. But depriving minorities of access to the technology won't help matters any. We need to make sure the glass ceiling isn't replaced by a silicon ceiling.

Fredrick L. McKissack Jr. is a web designer and a freelance writer in Chicago.
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Title Annotation:lack of computers among African Americans
Author:McKissack, Fredrick L., Jr.
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Jun 1, 1998
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