The Digital Divide and the Panacea of the Masses

Family watching television, c. 1958 By Evert F. Baumgardner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Family watching television, c. 1958 By Evert F. Baumgardner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In 2002, Dickard and Schneider reported that only 54% of Americans were online.  According to a recent CNN Money article,  52% of lowest income families (making $20,000 or less) don’t have a computer in their homes.  However, 62% of those in that low bracket own between two and four televisions (as of a 2009 survey).

What does that actually mean?  And why should we care?

CNN Money asks if it means that they aren’t poor.  But maybe they’re missing the point. 

It IS poverty to own a TV and not a computer.  Literacy does not refer to just reading skills.  Illiteracy, according to Ribriro (2006), is not just a lack of schooling but anyone who has a “limited mastery of reading and writing skills.”   In this day and age, reading and writing occurs online. 

It isn’t just reading and writing that gets accomplished online, though.  In order to make a difference, in order to start a movement, in order to get involved and be able to be empowered, one must be able to get online.  Grassroots organizations solicit members, get donations, and even sign petitions.  They make others aware of problems, get people involved, and get ideas for helping to overcome problems. 

How can someone nowadays find a job that will help them earn more than $20,000?  They have to look for it online.

How does someone get the training and skills they need for that job?  They have to look for it online.

Not owning a computer, and not knowing how to use one, is part of what keeps many of these people at that level.  It’s easy to buy a TV and know how to use one; it’s hard to buy a computer and know how to use one.

The last time I went shopping for a laptop, I walked in knowing what I wanted and how much I wanted to spend on it.  Even then, the salesman questioned me.  Why did I want that computer?  Did I know about this computer?  What was my budget?  If I hadn’t been sure of myself, I might have crumbled and caved, given in to his “I know more than you” attitude.  Would someone, earning less than $20,000 a year, who may already be unsure of him or herself, give in at that point and allow themselves to be bullied? 

Even if they don’t give in, even if they buy what they intended to buy, what about being able to afford everything that goes along with it?  Would that person be able to afford monthly connectivity charges to the Internet, ranging from $30 or more a month?  Would that person be able to buy the software that comes as a free sample and then runs out?  What would they do if the computer broke – or was broken when they got it home – and they couldn’t tell how to fix it?  And just how many computer shops (that aren’t pawn stores with questionable stock) are located in the middles of areas with median incomes of $20,000, anyway?

There are more questions than answers, but I think the important thing to take away here is the fact that we can’t judge that someone who has a TV or two instead of a computer is “not poor.”  If anything, they are far poorer than they know.



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