Crossing The Digital Divide

Is owning a computer enough? Not anymore

A couple of years ago, the digital divide — generally defined as the schism between those with access to technology and those without — was a hot-button issue. It was almost fashionable for government officials and high tech tycoons to voice their concerns about the plight of African Americans missing the boat to the New Economy, and trailing whites in every category from computer ownership to Internet use.

In the past, the digital divide was largely thought to be an issue of access to relevant Websites. Today, says AOL Time Warner Foundation Vice President B. Keith Fulton, once head of the National Urban League’s technology initiatives, there is a realization that the focus needs to be on training, awareness, and helping African Americans make their lives more meaningful through the use of technology.

But the buzz about providing access has quieted, Fulton says. One reason is that many tech companies are hurting. Since the Internet bubble burst, many firms no longer have the resources to focus on bridging the divide.

Of course there are some exceptions. Fulton’s AOL Time Warner Foundation provides support for a number of programs that teach minorities about computers and the Internet. And part of software giant Microsoft Corporation’s proposed settlement of several private antitrust lawsuits involves donating more than $1 billion worth of computer equipment to low-income schools. (U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz has since rejected that proposal, saying it would give Microsoft an unfair advantage over Apple Computer, an established player in the education arena). But Fulton believes training is key, and points to community tech centers such as Technology Access Foundation in Seattle, which teaches skills and an appreciation for the benefits that technology brings.

So has the divide been bridged? Not quite. But recent statistics suggest that it is narrowing. According to a study last year by Internet audience measurement firm Nielsen//NetRatings, the number of black Web users surged 19% in the past year, while the overall Internet population only grew 14% during the same period. But experts fear those gains could be hampered in light of the Bush administration’s budget, which cuts the Commerce Department’s Technology Opportunities Program. The program was responsible for placing computers and Internet access in inner cities. The budget also eliminates community technology centers.

And some technologists say an increase in the number of African American Web users doesn’t show the big picture. And focusing on the number of African Americans who own a computer, or who have ever logged on to the Internet, misses the point.

“For many black Americans, the PC is merely a fashionable piece of furniture,” says Detrick DeBurr, author of Deal Us In! How Black America Can Play and Win in the Digital Economy (Anji Publishing, $14.95) DeBurr, who tours the country speaking about the digital divide, says that until more black Americans develop an aptitude for using their computers and the Internet to better their economic situations, the divide is as wide as an ocean.

Omar Wasow, executive director of the online community BlackPlanet.com, agrees that an increase

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