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October 19, 2005

A Casual Review of the Digital Divide

I realize that I don't go buck wild quite as much as I used to in these pages. I've become so bloody serious. I need to write some more comics and get those other humours flowing through the veins.

At any rate, since I'm bent beyond recognition and dedicated to living on the bleeding edge of my passions, its difficult for me to redact the mix of characters that pushed me to this vector. So I guess I may as well make all concerned aware of some crudely frank yet strikingly correct original positions by way of the following links.

  • The Death of the Digital Divide
  • Race, Cyberspace & The Digital Divide
  • Computer-Show.com
  • PeoplePC
  • And now to the serious summary which is what I used in Greensboro - the following string of axioms.

  • There is no Digital Divide. The Digital Divide is a proxy for cultural dissonance.

  • My favorite show on television is Dirty Jobs. Our civilization doesn't depend on white collar work, so the digital revolution wasn't supposed to be about blue collar folks.

  • The internet is what people who use the internet say it is, and it is way, way too big for anybody to say. People talk about white males being 75% of the internet as if anybody could possibly make sense of 1% of the internet.

  • When Russians build rockets to leave Earth's gravity they call the thing they're in 'the Cosmos'. When Americans do it, they call it 'Space'. Therefore the Russians will always win the Cosmos Race and the Americans always win the Space Race. So that begs the question. Who wants to be in the 'Blogosphere'? I say everybody who wants to be there is there. If people are there for different reasons, who is to say that they're not happy? If people aren't there, who's to say they're missing out?

  • Last year, a black guy came out with a blog and said he was the first black blogger from Detroit. Only he wasn't. He was at least two years too late.
  • So what we're essentially dealing with is the question of the value of information which has been abstracted onto the net. There is a false presumption that the form and content of information that has value for an arbitrary group of people defines:
    A) What the Internet is all about.
    B) The stuff of value that Others have to get.

    Those who push the concept of digital inequality basically have to take their fight to exotic locales, because every town that has a Wal-Mart has cheap computers for little budgets.

    All of this is easy for me to say because I recognize various classes of people, and I don't make it a habit to second-guess blackfolks in particular. So if there are 34 million blackfolks who don't spend any time online, it doesn't concern me. I've been online since there has been an online, and I'm sure there hasn't been 100,000 blackfolks who have seen my work. I'm cool with that. If I suddenly discover:

    [African American] Internet usage: 61%. Percent who regularly go online for news: 25% (up from 16% in 2000)

    I'm cool with that too.

    Now there was a time, in my progressive days, that I had a certain amount of serious concerns about getting IT to the 'hood. In those days I approached a young woman named Micheline Wilcoxen who was at the time Program Director for a joint called Breakaway Technologies. This was fairly early on. It turned out that her big problem wasn't money, but the kind of bureaucratic fights she had to enjoin just to get access to public school kids in the 'hood. I met Micheline at the African Marketplace many years ago and we talked a few times about computers in the 'hood. I was especially interested because Breakaway was located around the corner from where I grew up near Crenshaw & Jefferson in Los Angeles.

    Understand that Breakaway had its own building, all the computers they needed, funding and staff. But the public school teachers would not let them on campus - basically because they would be showed up. The existence of Breakaway made public schools look bad, so they refused to let the kids learn. Yeah. I was shaking my head too.

    I have no idea what it takes to become certified as an afterschool program, but I got the distinct flavor at the time that the whole situation was mostly politics and mostly impossible. So I didn't volunteer.

    Apart and separate from that, I spent a lot of time trying to talk to community groups of various sorts to put their information online via bulletin boards in the days before the net and on the web in the days after. Notably I spoke to Haile Gerima about making a QuickTime version of his film Sankofa and making it available on CD for community groups. This was in the days just after the Power Mac was born and people were nuts about this thing called 'New Media'. Gerima dismissed the notion out of hand. I asked him why, and he looked at me like I was crazy. It's all about the big screen, he said. And he went on to reminesce about the great experience he had when his film debuted in Germany. For Gerima, it wasn't about getting a message to people in the 'hood, it was about filmmaking. Macs aren't film. They're low budget devices.

    Of course I wasn't the only black person with such ideas about low cost distribution of black mental liberation. There were plenty of pioneers back in the day, but for all kinds of reasons, there was something we couldn't see. The thing I couldn't see in 1993 was demand. I thought that good ideas provided their own juice. It's something of a naive belief, but I had plenty of company in that regard. I still thought that "If you build it, they will come." It's not true. You don't know who 'they' are until they show up. And if you think 'they' are the target market, the black, the poor - those for whom so much rhetoric and moral suasion is invested these days, you will be sorely disappointed. It's only a question of how quickly you'll be disappointed.

    So when I was trying to figure out why the cats at Netnoir were so upscale and shiny, whilst my partner and I were focused on serious black history, what I didn't really want to accept was that everything needs a business plan, and that communications is big business - even on the web. Generally speaking, you can't reach millions without spending millions, and millions aren't just lying around waiting to be spent.

    There are too many reasons to be online and to remain offline for anyone to suggest they have a handle on them when it comes to African Americans. So the Digital Divide is a theory ever in search of a target, and as time moves forward it adjusts again and again. There may be a new Digital Divide theory that evades every criticism I've laid down here. Maybe the Digital Divide is in Somalia today. I can't say. I don't study it.

    The joy I get out of computing and computer mediated communications is practically boundless. I've been playing and working with computers since 1974. Everything here has always made perfect sense to me, but I don't have a hard time recognizing that lots of folks don't get it and don't need to. I think the barriers against those who want to experience the joy are negligible. Even water's not free, but I don't think any real divide is keeping Americans from quenching their digital thirst.

    Posted by mbowen at October 19, 2005 05:18 PM

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    Good post. I agree that these days just about anyone who wants to be/get online for a time can probably do so without a great deal of sustained effort. However, the issues re digital divide may be around 1)ownership of access and 2)ownership of the dominant agendas.

    Posted by: memer [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 20, 2005 06:57 AM