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Divide (Digitally) and Conquer

Don Lobo Tiggre

On September 21, 2000, President Clinton called for measures to close the so-called digital divide. This supposed gap between the "Haves and HaveNots" of the information age has become the latest boogie-man for do-gooders to charge off and slay (for a nauseatingly PC look at the statist perspective on the subject, check out the Digital Divide. Being the bold leader of the 21st century that he is, he fearlessly called for--you guessed it--more government. I've been hearing a steadily increasing volume of statist vomit about the need for governments to step in, so all those poor people and minorities don't get left behind in the information age. Gasp! I haven't heard Jesse Jackson or some similar luminary declare the Internet to be a racist technology yet, but I won't be surprised when I do.

The experts are boiling out of the woodwork like termites out of a log thrown in a fire. On Monday, October 2nd, a technology consulting firm based in Stamford, CT called the Gartner Group Inc., released a study projecting that up to 50 million Americans could be left "functionally illiterate" by the year 2005, when 75 percent of all households are expected to be hooked up to the Internet (up from just over 50 percent today). Boy, that's a lot of voters--I mean, poor underprivileged people who have every bit as much a right to benefit from the fruits of the information age explosion of productivity as anyone else! Michael Fleisher, CEO of Gartner, said in remarks prepared for a House Government Reform Subcommittee hearing that the government should act to close the digital divide with tax credits to companies that provide Internet access to employees and incentives for telecommuting. "The Internet," he said, "will soon be so pervasive that not having access to the technology or not knowing how to use it will be the equivalent of not knowing how to read or write."

The socially active Annie E. Casey Foundation releases a yearly report on various factors affecting the well-being of children, called Kids Count. Kids Count 2000, released on June 20, 2000, reported that the digital divide is "depriving millions of poor children of the latest technology, putting them at a disadvantage in education and, eventually, employment." Hmmm. Seems it wasn't too long ago when all the experts were dismissing home computers as exotic toys for folks who read too much science fiction and had too much disposable income. Now, children who don't have what was widely considered a luxury item less than five years ago are being deprived.

Kids Count 2000 reports that 84 percent of families in low-income urban areas are unwired. The national average of unwired families is 49 percent. Douglas W. Nelson, president of the Casey Foundation, said: "These families have been barely touched by the economic boom of the 1990s." Other critics decry that the few poor families that do have computers have beat-up, second hand equipment with "outdated software", leaving their owners no better off than they were before.

Such perspectives are conveniently myopic for people who want to see the world in a certain way. It's not that they imagine that poor people would be better if the current economic expansion, the longest such in peacetime in U.S. history, hadn't been made possible by the vast increased in productivity computers have enabled--they just don't think about that sort of thing. Or, maybe they believe the president when he claims that the boom is due to the economic policies of his party... Nah--nobody's that na´ve. And it's not that they think Matt Drudge is some kind of genius (that no one else could create the information empire he has starting with an old 486 hand-me-down, working out of a tiny LA apartment); it's just that they know that the poor can only be poor if other people are oppressing them--or their whole "class". Perhaps it would cause too much pain for them to allow themselves to seriously consider the possibility that some people are just making "bad choices" and having to live (or die) with the consequences. But what else can intellectually honest people call it when a welfare mother buys her kids $100 designer jeans in a store right up the street from where the Salvation Army is selling complete ready-to-use computer systems for $50?

Be that as it may, you can't be taken seriously and put the words "Clinton" and "intellectually honest" in the same sentence without some kind of negative modifier. So, with the experts behind him and many votes to collect for his cronies, the president announced millions of dollars in other people's money to be used to help close the digital divide. This includes grants to the Department of Education and AmeriCorps, blue ribbon panels of more experts, deals with high tech companies (yes, Microsoft up in the forefront) and universities, and new "orders" for the cabinet to explore ways of using Medicare and Medicaid to pay for "technologies that promote independent living."

But, you know...

I'm a Hispanic (by other people's definitions, since race and "ethnicity" are really unimportant to me and don't play much of a role in my self-awareness). If I wanted to look at it that way, I could also say I'm poor--I have a bunch of sweaters on right now, because I can't afford to keep the apartment heated "properly". I have five children and make so little money that I could get a couple grand in other people's money from the Ferals, if I didn't mind all the blood dripping off it. And guess what, there was a time when my kids didn't have any computers. It was after we gave up our middle-class lifestyle that depended on cooperating with the IRS (I had convinced myself that I could do more good if I stayed out of jail). So I let the boys use my machine.

Yes, we went from having a nice suburban house, three cars, and four computers to having no house (unless you count the mobile home), no car (unless you count the mobile home), and use of only one computer (it was pretty mobile too). After we'd sold just about everything else, we still held on to that computer, because we knew that that one machine was our key to the future. And it was--with it we created income streams and opportunities that have enabled us to get back into houses, cars, and more computers. In spite of the color of my skin, the foreign languages I speak, and the low income nature of my lifestyle, I understand the importance of information processing in the information age.

So, at a time when all 6.67 of us were living in a one bedroom apartment and we were barely keeping enough food on the table, I went down to the thrift store and bought a computer for our cubs to use, just for them. Sure, it was an old first-generation Pentium machine, but it had everything they needed to get on-line and explore the world (they quickly learned more about Windoze than I ever knew and started teaching themselves computer programming languages). That old PC cost us $80, everything included--less than the sneakers worn by some kids who are too "disadvantaged" to bridge the digital divide. I did it because I know that learning how to use and create information technology, as well as manipulating vast amounts of information itself, is more important than anything they could learn at school. As relatively small as our incomes are (don't feel too sorry for me, our expenses are small as well: no mortgage, no car payment, no rent--but feel free to subscribe to DF! if you want to help!), we wanted our family to be wired for the 21st Century. We chose to participate in the information age, and neither my ethnicity nor my race, nor any other groupthink BS was going to hold me back.

But, what about the people who make other choices, who don't want to be on this side of the great divide? Somehow, I doubt that even massive Feral spending will persuade my friend Levi Smith to close up his Ohio wagon wheel shop and open up www.Amish.Com. Levi and his kind may not be a large percentage of the population--but remember, all this fuss is over the small fraction of the population that remains unwired over the next decade. Besides, there's old widow Hill, who lives around the corner and is still not sure about that new-fangled "television" contraption. Is she being deprived because she likes her life without all the latest gadgets and gizmos? And what about those people who'd rather spend hundreds on designer clothes than on a computer system--it is the greatest (and most fatal) conceit to presume that we know better than they how they should spend their money. We might see the choice differently if we could comprehend their full context. But even if it were a "bad choice", that's not the same as suffering a misfortune, or being set back by circumstances beyond one's control. It not only goes against most people's sense of fairness, but also their sense of charity to be forced to bail people out who insist on making bad choices, again, and again, and again.

The bottom line is that there's nothing we can do about people who choose not to enter the information age, and we can only hurt people by trying. The odd thing is that the old adage about being able to lead a horse to water but not make him drink it is old. No one ever tried to make sure everyone had "TV access", and even the cable TV regulators never tried to argue that every family had a right to government funded "free cable access". Why the economic idiocy now? What's this really all about?

In trying to answer such questions, it's usually helpful to ask one more: who benefits?

If Net access can be established as an entitlement, it will create yet another vast sector of society with a dependency on the state. Not only that, Net access can be established as a "basic human right", as American statists are arguing with medical care (statists elsewhere have pretty much won that fight), then they have the perfect moral ground to stand on for regulating it. This could be an even bigger prop to bolster the sagging institutions of socialism than universal health care, since people use the Net every day and not just when they are sick. Just think about it... What better way to put an end to all this wacky anarchistic freedom on-line than to set up a bunch of government licensed IMOs (Internet Management Organizations), or, better yet: universal access (privacy guaranteed by the NSA) via a single (state) provider!

I can see the statists salivating now--but first, they gotta create a big, big block of voters to get out there and demand what they're entitled to: a free lunch on a nice, safe, World Wide Web that has outgrown its adolescent infatuation with the chaos of the Wild West and has accepted Law and Order. How to accomplish this? Why, the same trick that has always worked so well: create a large constituency of misinformed and short-sighted people for what you want, to impose economically idiotic policies on those who know it will be a disaster and will have to foot the bill. Divide (digitally) and conquer!

(c) 2000

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