Wednesday, March 31, 2004

The digital divide should be a concern for everyone working in technology, but believing there exists merely a single divide to overcome is equally dangerous. The digital divide refers to everything from the possession of more computers by the “rich” than by the “poor,” or of one ethnic group over another. The digital divide also discusses the comfort level of computer users – again skewed towards more affluent social groups having more comfort and knowledge than the less affluent. All of these variations on a theme revolve around the fact that people of a lower income tend to not have computers. Getting computers in the hands of these people will help educate them about computers, convince them the need to have access to a computer, and close the divide.

As the study we read last week pointed out, exposure to computers at work dramatically increased the likelihood of computer ownership at home. It is true that in some circumstances the existence of those home computers could be something these people are required to have as part of their occupation, but it’s also possible that simple exposure to the power of computing convinced these people that having a home computer was worth the expense of purchasing one.

If people can be convinced to buy computers by exposing them to computers, it would follow that the best way to close the digital divide is to find a way to expose members of the purchasing public – those people with the buying power to actually purchase a computer – to the machines. This goes against other strategies where computers are put in classrooms to expose children to them. Children do need the exposure to computers, however they lack the buying power to actually purchase one. If they are unable to convince their parents of the necessity – and convincing the “unexposed” of the benefits of owing a computer is a difficult task for anyone – their household will continue to go without a computer. Perhaps a better strategy would be to provide exposure to computers not only to children but also to the adult members of demographics that typically don’t have them.

One problem with this idea stems from the fact that these people might not have the skills necessary to “run” the computers they are exposed to. It might be possible to solve this problem by providing training and exposure simultaneously though informal evening classes taught through community centers, churches, neighborhood associations, local schools, or libraries.

Another problem involves the issues surrounding the cost of computers, and the possibility that no matter what certain individuals’ desire may be they simply will not be able to afford a computer. This concern, though worth noting, isn’t anywhere near as valid as it was even a few years ago. The most common tasks performed on computers today are checking and sending email, browsing the Web, using an instant messenger, performing simple calculations or typing a document. Top of the line computers in today’s market cost approximately $3000 depending on manufacturer. Computers from five years ago are more than capable of performing the above tasks and cost roughly $200 – if they can’t be found for free. A program of recycling old computers by donation would help solve the problem of them “unaffordable at any price.”

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