Thursday, March 21, 2002

The Digital Divide
Robert J. Samuelson debunks the Digital Divide in today's Washington Post. (Glenn Reynolds, where you probably saw it first, has some further comments.) It's badly in need of debunking after Tom Brokaw's shameless pandering last Sunday on MSNBC's "Silicon Summit III".

Last year, Brokaw brought a schoolgirl onstage to ask the Assembled Big Domes, "Why can't you make computers less expensive? I'm not going to be able to keep up in school without a computer, and we can't afford one." And three of the panelists fell over themselves to give her computers. (If there were a Digital Divide, would that be the answer?)

This year, they brought the girl back to wave to the television audience. "I'm smarter," she said. "It's like I have a whole new brain." A half-hearted attempt was made to observe that just-plain literacy is more important than computer literacy, and the key to that is teachers, not computers. A somewhat-lesser attempt to say that computers are the cheapest they've ever been finished the segment before returning to the subject of piracy (they never strayed far from it).

For some reason, no one was prepared to argue that a personal computer is not an entitlement, nor that you can learn perfectly well without one. There are two big reasons for that: One is that the panel was comprised of big-name players in the computer industry (all of whom can afford all the computers they want), and it's not in their interest to say that you don't really need one. The second reason: As someone with children in elementary and middle schools, I can confirm that many teachers do assume you have access to a computer when they make certain homework assignments. Students without have to use the computers in the school library (which is only available limited hours). You really will fall behind without one.

Nor did anyone suggest that giving a computer to every student who asks for one might not be necessary. Computers are a commodity now. If they get any less expensive, they'll be giving them away with breakfast cereal. Yet this notion of a "digital divide" simply won't go away.

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