The multiplication of division

We spent a lot of time in the latter part of 1999 talking about the Y2K problem, but by the time the New Year’s ball dropped in Times Square we’d stopped calling it the Millennium Bug.

That’s because there would always be someone — at a trade show, a company meeting or (in our case) a

reader — who would point out that since there was no “”Year Zero,”” the new millennium would not occur until January 1, 2001. People were insufferably smug as they shared this information. In an industry fixated on the Next Big Thing, this was the New Annoying Thing. Kind of like people who deny the digital divide.

I don’t know who coined the term digital divide, but it hasn’t been as helpful as it could have been. Though it initially drew attention to the downside of technology’s relentless march towards the future, it has since been co-opted and misinterpreted by so many people that we risk getting bogged down in semantics rather than addressing the real problems.

For example, in a technical paper called “”Dynamic Model for the Popularity of Web Sites”” published earlier this year, a group of Korean scientists discuss a mathematical model they’ve created to chart Internet growth. Their theory states that the faster a segment of the Web grows, the more stark the contrast between large sites and small sites. Or, as Technology Research News calls these portals “”the haves and have-nots of the Internet.”” Its headline says, “”Faster growth heightens Web class divide.””

This is not the digital divide as I know it. I’m referring to the trend whereby the rich either own or have greater access to computers and the Internet. For many people, though, it no longer stops there. We’re seeing layers within that definition whereby the divide is measured not merely by access but what level of access. For example, rural parts of countries like Canada that can’t enjoy cellular phones, let alone high-speed Internet connections.

There is a further, more worrisome conclusion that some theorists have drawn which suggests the segregation of the digital divide widens socioeconomic gaps. Last year CDN contributor Grant Buckler reported figures from the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration that showed the increase of PC and Internet use rising faster in higher-income groups between 1994 and 1997. In Newsweek not long ago, Robert J. Samuelson cited wage statistics revealing a growing disparity between the amount people got paid that followed the rise of the computers. Samuelson debunked this data, however, by suggesting that the wage gap started to grow in the 1980s, which was probably a reflection of the recession in the early part of that decade.

There is no question that there are other factors at work behind social inequalities, but the possession and (more importantly) fluency in computer skills certainly provides more opportunity for career advancement. It’s strange to think of a commodity item like a PC as a status symbol, but perhaps IT equipment is simply a reflection of the divide, not its cause. There is certainly a divide, but the “”digital”” is only one symptom of it, rather than a disease to be treated in its own right.

Poverty, because it is such a difficult problem to solve, could become something we like to forget about while we search for new ways to make money through our high-tech tools. That those same tools could provide us an ongoing reminder of our social responsibility may be their most unexpected feature.

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