The “Digital Divide” and the Persistence of Urban Poverty

by Blanca Gordo

In the last six months, the “digital divide” has attracted a lot of public attention from corporate leaders, politicians, and scholars. The growing interest is in part a response to the release of the Department of Commerce’s report, “Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide,” a PBS documentary, a series of public summits on the topic, and the announcement of a multi-million dollar program funded by the Clinton Administration called Clickstart. Despite the attention devoted to it, talk about the “digital divide” and proposed solutions to this “new phenomenon” both mis-specify the problem of the digital divide and consequently present an overly simplistic solution.

The general definition of the “digital divide” is that it is the divide between those individuals and places that have a connection to the Internet and those who do not. The popular solution is to simply provide the hardware, software, and sometimes the infrastructure, to those who do not have it. The presumption is clear: having a computer and online connection will provide opportunity and solve the problems of the poor. However, the problem of the digital divide is greater than mere connection to technology.

The “digital divide” and its solutions can only be understood within the context of the social and economic problems and tragedies that low-income and under-served populations face. Lack of access to the digital world will continue as long as low-income communities are burdened by massive economic and social problems. Ultimately, the “digital divide” must be seen within this framework. When we speak of access, we need to push further and ask: access to what, for what, where, how, for whom, when, and why?

Even more, planners interested in and working on digital divide issues and solutions should stay away from overly simplified conceptions of technology and its direct “impact” on people and places. The context and setting in which technology is used provide strikingly different “impacts.” Technology is not deterministic, but is socially-constructed. What matters is how technology is used and for what purpose. Under what conditions does access to enabling technologies have more prospects for leveling or (re)creating inequalities? Research efforts should focus on figuring out the causal mechanisms, points of intervention, and measuring the context. Right now research should be based around: context, context, and context.

A movement of community technology has emerged throughout the United States as a response to the growing digital divide in our society (see Community Technology Access Centers (CTCs) are embarking on an ambitious plan to bring information technology to traditionally under-served and low-income communities for the purpose of improving their socioeconomic status. I have been examining the potential role of CTCs throughout California and New York. In doing this work I have redefined the “digital divide” concept to include not just internet access but the divide between those individuals and places that have the opportunity to participate, compete, and prosper in an increasingly information and knowledge-based economy and society and those who do not.

Community technology providers are addressing and grappling with these issues, realizing that technology is a tool to achieve other ends. As they see it, the inability to participate, compete, and prosper in a digital economy and society can only cement the process of underdevelopment of the physical space and the continued underemployment and unemployment of populations, increasing the possibilities for more concentrated poverty.

Thus, community technology is about providing what I term enhanced access. Enhanced access is about the production of knowledge rather than simple consumption of information. It is a combination of technical and soft skills (including social skills) needed to compete in a flexible and contingent labor force. In this way, technology is viewed as an enabling and productive tool, an information resource, and a vehicle for communication. The power of the Internet for some CTCs is the ability to expose, to fuel curiosity and motivate people to know and learn more. Thus, enhanced access includes the ability to use and manipulate technology and recognize and obtain the needed information; and the skills to be able to organize and transfer information into productive knowledge. It also includes the ability to apply and communicate this knowledge to meet personal, economic, political, and social needs and goals. Providers of enhanced access offer training (structured and informal), and hands-on experience which serves to credential individuals in the labor market, the school, and the community at large. Furthermore, the opportunity to be part of a CTC-where people gain skills and acquire valued labor market experience-increases the symbolic value, prestige, and status associated with being part of a formal organization. Some CTCs provide more than affordable connections, they provide the know-how (how to use technology), and relevance (how the tool can be used to meet economic, social, political, professional, and personal goals). This requires the time, space, assistance, guidance, and hands-on experience.

Plugged In in East Palo Alto is a place that provides enhanced access. This CTC is the community production studio, copy center, cyber-library, self-paced learning studio, and telecommunication booth for East Palo Alto. Plugged In uses technology to help community members of all ages to access the Internet, and information that can help them find jobs, start small businesses, get information on health resources, or receive homework assistance in a safe place. This CTC works with other local organizations to complement their services with job training, business development and other social programs.

Much can be learned about the places and conditions under which low-income communities benefit or not from enhanced access. The challenge and opportunity is to recognize the critical importance of how the problem of technology is framed and constructed, for this determines the solutions envisaged. It is imperative to be critical of the conditions in which technology is being provided. The results for some individuals can be harmful and irreversible.

Blanca Esthela Gordo is a doctoral student in the Department of City and Regional Planning, UC Berkeley.