What digital divide?

Blacks and English-speaking Hispanics are rapidly closing the gap, even among lower-income poeple. new studies report. Should we now speak of a broadband divide?
Written by ZDNET Editors, Contributor

A funny thing happened on the way to the digital divide. Computers got cheap, schools got technology, and the Internet became a pervasive force. The result, according to the New York Times, is that the so-called digitla divide has largely closed for African- and Hispanic-Americans.

According to a Pew national survey of people 18 and older, completed in February, 74 percent of whites go online, 61 percent of African-Americans do and 80 percent of English-speaking Hispanic-Americans report using the Internet. The survey did not look at non-English-speaking Hispanics, who some experts believe are not gaining access to the Internet in large numbers.

In a similar Pew survey in 1998, just 42 percent of white American adults said they used the Internet while only 23 percent of African-American adults did so. Forty percent of English-speaking Hispanic-Americans said they used the Internet.

But many say that "digital divide" is an awfully broad brush with which to understand the disparities. How people use the Internet, with what equipment and what speed are also critical divides.

[S]ome groups like the Intel Computer Clubhouse Network, which introduces digital technologies to young people, say the digital divide is still vast in more subtle ways. Instant messaging and downloading music is one thing, said Marlon Orozco, program manager at the network's Boston clubhouse, but he would like to see black and Hispanic teenagers use the Internet in more challenging ways, like building virtual communities or promoting their businesses.

Vicky Rideout, vice president of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which has studied Internet use by race, ethnicity and age, cautioned that a new dimension of the digital divide might be opening because groups that were newer to the Internet tended to use less-advanced hardware and had slower connection speeds.

"The type and meaningful quality of access is, in some ways, a more challenging divide that remains," Ms. Rideout said. "This has an impact on things like homework."

In addition, Internet access solely at institutions can put students at a disadvantage. Schools and other institutions seldom operate round the clock, seven days a week, which is especially an issue for students, said Andy Carvin, coordinator for the Digital Divide Network, an international group that seeks to close the gap.

And with more minorities online, new opportunities appear to reach out to them. The article focuses on nonprofit outreach but obviously the commercial marketing possibilities are not far behind.

With so many more members of minorities online, some Web sites are trying to capitalize on their new access. For example, the New York/New Jersey region of the State of the African American Male, a national initiative to improve conditions for black men, is encouraging men to use digital equipment to "empower themselves" to better their lives. The site, which includes studies, public policy reports and other information about issues related to black men, promotes using digital cameras, mobile phones and iPods, but mainly computers, to organize through the Internet, said Walter Fields, vice president for government relations for the Community Service Society, an antipoverty organization, and a coordinator of the black-male initiative. Users are encouraged to submit articles, write blogs and upload pertinent photographs and video clips.

"What we're doing is playing against the popular notion of a digital divide," Mr. Fields said. "I always felt that it was a misnomer."


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