Is the digital divide fact or fiction?
For years, studies suggested that minorities were less likely to use computers and were economically disadvantaged as a result. Now, as research reveals that minorities are increasingly using computers and the Internet, experts are debating the concept of a digital divide and its relevance.
Some argue that, unfortunately, the digital divide still is alive and well. Skeptics counter that it is extinct.
“The digital divide is a non-issue at this point,” says Benjamin Compaine, editor of The Digital Divide: Facing a Crisis or Creating a Myth. Mr. Compaine, a research consultant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says research shows that minorities are using technology more than ever, and he believes computers and the Internet will soon become as common in Hispanic homes as televisions and VCRs.
A 2002 report by the Department of Commerce found that between 2000 and 2001, Internet use among Hispanics grew 30 percent, compared with 20 percent for Anglos. The study also indicates that nearly half of U.S. Hispanics now use computers.
Others say those numbers tell only part of the story.
Elsa Macias, director of information technology research at the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, says research can be misinterpreted.
“You can do anything with statistics, frankly,” she says. “You can interpret them in a lot of different ways. Those of us who are fairly savvy about how the data can be interpreted can say, ‘Hold on a second. That’s only part of the picture.’”
She says the Department of Commerce figures are based on computer use from any location, not household computer ownership. That means the data will include not only a family that spends hours surfing the Web and creating digital movies on an iMac at home but also a person who spends a few minutes a month checking e-mail at the library.
“You can’t compare the two,” she says. “When you’re talking about access from anywhere, that includes people who go to the library and maybe have access for half an hour per day if they stand in line and sign up.”
She concedes that Hispanics have made strides, however. A 2002 Tomás Rivera report, which she co-authored, shows that 40 percent of Hispanic households own computers, compared with 25.5 percent in 1998. And 32 percent of Hispanic households are online, compared with 12.6 percent in 1998.
But Hispanics still have not caught up to the overall population, she says, and the digital divide is hardly a non-issue. Nearly 62 percent of Anglo households have at least one computer, and 55.4 percent have Internet access, according to the Tomás Rivera report.
“That is still a gap, quite a large gap,” Ms. Macias maintains.
Computer use among all segments of the population is increasing as technology becomes cheaper, more user-friendly, and more widely available. But Ms. Macias says physical access is only one hurdle in the digital divide. The Tomás Rivera report cites the need for training, education, and culturally relevant Web content.
“It’s about much more than just getting a computer and the Internet,” she says. “If you don’t have the skills to use it, it’s just going to sit there. We’ve seen programs that put computers in schools. But frequently we’d go into the schools and see the computers still in their boxes because no one was skilled enough to put them together and make them work.”
Mr. Compaine argues that the digital divide is “a moving target” whose definition keeps changing.
While there has been a good deal of research about the so-called divide, some results are contradictory.
For example, a 2000 Cheskin Research study found that 42 percent of U.S. Hispanic households owned computers, and that in the previous two years, computer ownership rates rose 68 percent for Hispanics, compared with 43 percent for the general U.S. population.
Yet the previous year, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration said Hispanics were actually losing ground with regard to computer ownership, with the gap between Anglo and Hispanic households increasing by 42 percent between 1994 and 1998.
In 2000, a Forrester Research survey indicated that U.S. Hispanics were 9 percent more likely than Anglos to be online.
From Ms. Macias’s perspective at least, Hispanics have made strides, but have yet to catch up.
“We’re making progress, definitely,” she says, “but there’s still work to be done.”
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