Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Staring Down the Digital Divide

I didn't realize until I checked now that I haven't had an AO piece up for seven weeks. Wow. I thought I laid off writing for about a month, but I guess my sense of time has been off. Now since the wedding planning and wedding is over I will devote more time to getting more articles out at AlwaysOn. Anyway, check it out:

Staring Down the Digital Divide
Bloggers are the haves in the new new economy, but there are plenty of have-nots as well—and none of us can afford to forget them.

Last week on my honeymoon in Crete, Greece, I found myself detached from civilization. Not so much because of the remote locale, the lack of video-on-demand or cable news in my hotel suite, or even the dearth of America fast-food outlets. The real reason for my detachment was that I didn't have Internet access. That's right: No Internet access for an entire week.

Each day I listened as hotel staff explained to me that their "servers were down" which toward the end of my stay I came to interpret as they were never up. There was no access. Ever. A couple days before we left, I spoke with one of the staff technicians, who fed me the same line but also informed me (when asked) that their connection speed was "56K." 56K? I hadn't heard that number/letter combination in about a decade. If this is the speed the majority of the island is connecting at, a digital divide definitely exists between the people here and the folks back home in Silicon Valley.

That conversation took me back 10 years, to when I was working on a consulting project for the city of St. Louis. The community had just received an Enterprise Community Zone grant (baby brother to President Clinton's Empowerment Zone initiative) to improve the quality of life in designated poverty-stricken areas of the city. A portion of the $200,000 grant was allocated to build a "community information network" where people could access information about services provided by the city and local nonprofit organizations.

This network was core to the grant's vision because many of the residents of the impoverished neighborhoods had no knowledge of the basic services that were available to assist in their well-being and development. It was thought that the Internet could serve as an equalizer, granting the residents access to a world of important information.

Our consulting team was to further define the initial vision, create the framework of information provided, and begin to execute as much of it as possible during our short time with the city of St. Louis. This was my first entry into the intersection of the Internet and public policy as well as the project that led me on my path toward technology entrepreneurship. It was also the first time I'd thought seriously about the digital divide that exists within our nation and the world.

I realized then that the explosion of the Internet was widening the gap between society's haves and have-nots. The rapidly growing sea of information and services coming at us from our computer screens was creating a wealth of opportunities for some. But for others it was only accentuating the lack of the same. Knowledge equals power. Thus, when there's unequal access to it, those that are already underserved, undereducated, and underemployed only fall further behind.

Fast-forward to today, and we're reading blogs, using Linkedin or MySpace for social networking, assigning ourselves avatars, and downloading movies through BitTorrent. Now imagine the digital divide between those of us doing the above and the citizens of Crete. Although AlwaysOn readers and bloggers represent a small group at the cutting edge of Internet usage, I think we all believe that our online behavior will gradually become the norm.

The bottom line is that the development of the Web is a great thing -- but also a point of concern. The divide is growing, so that while the superusers are voicing their concerns about digital identities and most U.S. online citizens are at minimum accessing job information, the 24-year-old man in East St. Louis has no idea the world is passing him by. And he is not alone. A 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Commerce revealed that 38.2 percent of U.S. households don't have computers and 45.4 percent of U.S. households don't have Internet access. The study also found that 41.3 percent of the total U.S. population does not use the Internet from any location.

These are shocking figures for those of us who are connected. What's more, the primary reasons given by "those households that have never connected to the Internet at home" suggest problems of cost/value and availability as well as perception: 41.6 percent of those who had never connected at home cited "don't need/not interested" as the reason; 22.9 percent cited "too expensive" as the reason; and 22.5 percent cited "no or inadequate computer available" as the reason.

Whether you're in this country or another, the problem of the digital divide is more tangible than ever -- and one we cannot and should not ignore. Often, altruistic efforts to level the playing field are quickly forgotten after the initial rallying cry, or they get pushed aside by projects with greater political and economic clout.

In the case of my St. Louis project, there was talk among political leaders at the time of using the "community information network" and grant money as a springboard for all residents of the city, not just those in the designated impoverished areas. I viewed this proposal with disgust -- an unabashed attempt by a couple of city aldermen to seek political glory by reaching a greater base of supporters. To my knowledge, the project remained as originally conceived -- serving those who needed it most -- but if we don't keep people accountable and focused on their commitments, many such projects will never reach fruition.

If you're reading this, you're one of the haves: You have access to a computer; you're connected to the Internet -- in short, you're way ahead of the curve. As such, you cannot forget the have-nots, those on the other side of the digital divide. All of us involved in the tech industry (both as workers and those who reap the benefits of technology) must be aware of this gap and think about how we -- both collectively and as individuals -- can address it. If we don't, we'll all pay in the end.

UPDATE: Since the old AlwaysOn site was taken down and posts were not properly transferred, I just kept the full article here.

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