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From The Atlantic:

"Technology Versus African-Americans," by Anthony Walton (January 1999)
From the caravel to the cotton gin, technological innovation has made things worse for blacks. Will the information revolution be any different?

"The Computer Delusion," by Todd Oppenheimer (July 1997)
There is no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve teaching and learning, yet school districts are cutting programs -- music, art, physical education -- that enrich children's lives to make room for this dubious nostrum, and the Clinton Administration has embraced the goal of "computers in every classroom" with credulous and costly enthusiasm.

Related link:

"Down and Out in Silicon Valley," by Marci McDonald (U.S. News & World Report, July 19, 1999)
A severe housing crisis threatens the high-tech center's amazing boom.

The Great Divide
July 15, 1999

Po Poses on the cover of Wired
   Po (center) strikes a pose
   for Wired
The novelist Po Bronson (The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest) opens his new nonfiction book, The Nudist on the Late Shift, and Other True Tales of Silicon Valley, with a description of his meeting David Filo, a co-founder of Yahoo!. Filo is one of a new species identified by Bronson as the "Sub-35 Billionaire," a charmed young entrepreneur who has struck it rich -- absurdly rich -- in the "digital gold rush." What Bronson quickly realizes is that "most people who look at David Filo -- and most people who look at Silicon Valley -- can't see past the dollar signs." This is understandable, though, because as Bronson says, "hypersensitivity to a billion dollars is the norm.... It is normal to go weird around money, to be made uncomfortable by it, to get supremely excited about it. Money is exceptionally titillating." Unless you're Po Bronson. "I don't go weird around money," he confides, sounding like Tom Wolfe without the irony. This trait made the job of reporting for the book -- in which he vividly profiles the people who make Silicon Valley such a special place -- quite a bit easier.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Bronson's billionaires and aspiring billionaires are those less fortunate Americans who are profiled (albeit en masse) by the Commerce Department in its new report "Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide," released last week. The report (the department's third on the topic since 1995) dishes up the latest statistics on Internet access and usage in the United States, and finds that the worrisome gap between so-called "information haves" and "information have-nots" is growing dramatically -- that is, Internet usage among the affluent is soaring while the poorer and less educated are being left behind. Eighty percent of blacks and Hispanics, and two-thirds of Americans overall, are without Internet access from home or work. For this vast unwired majority, the only connection to the online world is through whatever form of public access they can find, whether at local libraries, schools, or other "community access centers."

Clinton in L.A.
Clinton on tour in Los Angeles   
What is being done to address the situation? Last week President Clinton concluded his four-day glam tour of American poverty with a stop in southern California, where he was joined by officials from the Commerce Department and leaders of high-tech companies who are committing resources to help narrow the gap between haves and have-nots. At the press conference the Administration touted its own efforts -- such as the E-rate and the Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP) -- to make Net access and technology more affordable, and highlighted the success of public-access programs like that of the New York Public Library system. But as Assistant Secretary of Commerce Larry Irving put it, "The message is that we need a lot of heavy lifting in the private sector." Among the lifters already signed up: Lucent Technologies will help to finance a new Academy of Information Technology, which will set up a specialized curriculum in ten pilot-program schools; Ameritech is teaming up with the National Urban League to create "state-of-the-art Digital Campuses" in five cities; AT&T and the NAACP have announced a joint effort to create community "technology centers" in twenty cities around the country; 3Com will donate equipment and training to help students in ten cities become computer-network engineers.

These are fine initiatives, all of them (and there are others). Yet they share a common theme, one that runs through the Commerce Department report like an article of faith: namely, the idea that simply putting technology in the hands of those who have been without it, and giving Internet access to those who have been isolated from the new (and old) economy, will somehow close the "digital divide" in America.

But what if the digital divide is defined as something wider and altogether more profound than the gap between those with technology at their fingertips and those without? What if it is defined as a deep cultural divide between the kind of fevered pursuit of individual wealth one sees in Silicon Valley (and other nodes of the digital economy) and an old-fashioned belief in the ideal of a civil society in which citizens take responsibility for the public good? What if Silicon Valley is really a microcosm of American capitalism at the end of the twentieth century -- a place where becoming a billionaire by the age of thirty is the new definition of success for the young, restless, and well-educated, and where philanthropy means equipping the masses not with a first-rate primary education but with the tools they need to become good electronic consumers?

No, I tell myself, I should relax and not worry so much. It's still normal to go weird around money. And Silicon Valley is still a very strange place.

--Wen Stephenson

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Wen Stephenson is the editorial director of Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Clinton photo by David Scull, courtesy of the White House Web site.

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