Closing the Gap on Internet Inequality

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Some technology experts say the digital divide between African Americans and whites is shrinking — but how fast? Tech contributor Mario Armstrong provides an update.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

A recent New York Times article highlighted a seeming narrowing of the digital divide between African-Americans and whites. But just how much has it shrunk? I spoke with NEWS AND NOTES regular tech contributor Mario Armstrong to get the latest.

MARIO ARMSTRONG reporting:

Unfortunately, I believe that we have been using the wrong measures for quite some time, and the measure right now that seems to be the standard is the amount of access that one has to a computer, and that seems to be it. So, in other words, we're equating computer ownership with the digital divide.

CHIDEYA: What better measures could you have?

ARMSTRONG: Right now, we're seeing more of a divide as it relates to connectivity. Who is and who is not connected to the Internet? It's one thing to have a computer, but are you using that computer to connect to the Internet? But then it gets even dicier.

After you've determined whether or not a computer is connected to the Internet, is it connected solely through dial-up, which is a slower connection, or is it going through high-speed, broadband connectivity? And there's a difference between that experience, between someone who uses the Internet on a dial-up connection versus someone who uses the Internet on a broadband connection. There has been proven research by the pew.internet.org Web site that has shown that there's a difference in web use.

CHIDEYA: So, while more people of color have more computers, what about the issue of, basically, what people are doing with those computers. You mentioned that if you have high-speed Internet access, you may have the ability to do more complicated things online. Do we see African-Americans and whites having different patterns in usage?

ARMSTRONG: We do see some difference, and the main thing that I will point to in one recent survey that was done by AOL was a survey that was on the digital divide and that it was shrinking, and it was called 2005 AOL African-American Cyber Study. And this was conducted by a third party market research group, so it wasn't AOL specifically. But what they did find was that there is a lack, a lack of content that was of interest to African-Americans particularly.

So, it did seem that, yes, we may all be getting connected, yes, we're all valuing and recognizing that we need to move digitally, we need to move to the online world, that it is empowering, we can find out specific information about our communities, about our health, about our financial matters, but we aren't finding specific information that speaks more to us in more areas online. You're finding only a few sites that seem to capture that attention right now.

CHIDEYA: How does being behind in terms of technology hurt somebody in today's world where, for example, if you buy a plane ticket, they charge you an extra $10 if you do it on the phone versus online? In what ways is now the time to get online?

ARMSTRONG: You're hitting some of the premiere points of this whole scenario. The divide is actually growing, folks. It's not lessening. A perfect example would be college admissions these days. Ninety percent of these admissions are done online, and the faster you can get through those processes, the faster you're more likely to be seen or to, at least, have your school of choice.

But, even with basic things like travel, basic things like shopping for a car, all types of things that you can benefit in saving money and saving time that you can now do online. But it really comes down to maybe four main points that I see that we could fall behind if folks aren't really gravitating to PC ownership with Internet access and really pushing themselves to be involved digitally. And that is economic equality.

Social mobility is another, and the way computers and computer networks play an increasingly important role in our learning and in our career and in our professional development and lifelong learning. But also, democracy, you know, having more viewpoints. Being able to have access to more information more readily makes you more empowered and should enable us to have a healthier democracy about issues.

And then, ultimately, this speaks to a broader area of just economic growth in general. If more people are using information technologies to get themselves connected, we would probably see more African-Americans in business utilizing technology tools that would put them on the same playing field as some of their corporate competitors.

CHIDEYA: So, if you are one of those people who either doesn't have a computer at home, or doesn't have high-speed connectivity--and realizing, Mario, that this is an issue of money and knowledge, and those are two big barriers. Some people don't have the money. Some people say, well, I'm going to have to learn a whole new set of skills. What kinds of tools or programs are there out there to help you either get a computer or learn how to use one?

ARMSTRONG: And this is the challenge, right? I mean, you can go to Dell online and desktop computers have come down in price. You could go to HP. You can go to all your manufacturers and try to acquire it, but if you don't have the money, you just don't have the money. You may recognize that you need to get this technology, but what are some convenient ways to do so?

So, some cities have been aggressive in helping to bridge the digital divide. You're seeing that in Philadelphia. You're seeing that in your hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, and over on the west coast in San Francisco--some really interesting programs that are being run by local government. So, you need to find out what your local government is up to.

The only other suggestions that I can make is that many of the manufacturers of hardware also have refurbished equipment--equipment that is good enough to get you online, that brings you up-to-date--may not have all the tools, but it's probably half the cost. So, if you're shopping for a computer, and look for the refurbished section of their Web sites where you can find some amazing deals that can help you get access.

Outside of that Farai, we're really leaning on the industry to help out. And the only other case that's really seeming to really paint some hope on this picture is Google, and they have just launched this major wireless initiative which enables all folks in San Francisco to connect to the Internet wirelessly.

But now they're talking about a new service that they just announced called Glo-Fi, which would globally enable anyone access to the Internet for free. This really has some major telecommunications providers shook up, but this is kind of what we need in order to bridge this digital divide.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, that's a lot to think about. We're going to stay tuned on those developments. Mario Armstrong is our tech expert here at NEWS AND NOTES. He also does radio shows on technology for Baltimore area member stations WEAA and WYPR. Thanks, Mario.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Farai.

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