A Short History of the Digital Divide

A high-tech "Who Done It."

A high-tech "Who Done It."
Uncle Sam with bags of money

This article is part five in the series "The New Literacy: Scenes from the Digital Divide 2.0." For more information on the digital divide, visit our Digital Divide Resource Roundup.

That there might even be such a thing as the "Digital Divide" did not even cross the national mind until the 1991 passage of the High Performance Computing Act, which funded a high-speed fiber optic network that would ultimately become "the Internet." Without digital connectivity, home computers might still have been useful, but probably little more than glorified typewriters or very expensive adding machines. Between 1991 and 1996, the number of personal computers in the United States jumped from 300,000 to over ten million. By the mid-1990s the development of Internet browsers like Mosaic and Netscape was leading more adventurous users out into a new realm called "cyberspace." Email was becoming an increasingly useful application, and officials in the Clinton Administration were beginning to wonder if access to information technology was being fairly distributed. In summer 1995, the new National Telecommunications & Information Administration prepared a report called "Falling Through the Net: A Survey of the 'Have Nots' in Rural and Urban America."

For the staff at the NTIA, the inequalities of online access were another aspect of the larger issues of wealth and poverty. According to Albert Hammond, a White House aide, and one of the agency's founders, "the issue was about helping make working people understand that at least 60 percent of all new jobs were going to require fluency, not just on computers, but on the Internet as well."

When all of the clues are culled through, it seems that Hammond, who today teaches law at Santa Clara University Law School, was the co-inventor, along with NTIA Administrator Larry Irving, of the phrase "Digital Divide." At any rate, in 1996, Newsweek Magazine named Irving, "Conscience of the Internet," and the phrase Digital Divide found its way into speeches by Vice President, Al Gore.

In January 1996, the New York Times took up the call, running an article proclaiming "A New Gulf in American Education, the Digital Divide." The story compared the availability of computers and Internet access at two nearby California Schools. Kids at the less affluent school had to make-do with a six-year-old IBM PC, while students at the other, more affluent, school were able to go home and work on their own Apple Macintosh's. By October 1996, the New York Times reported a story from Georgia titled, "A Nation Ponders Its Growing Digital Divide." The piece reported that "only 9 percent of American classrooms have access to the Internet." It was soon also reported that the Reverend Jesse Jackson referred to the Digital Divide as "classic apartheid," while the NAACP's Kweisi Mfume called it "technological segregation." Al Hammond and others at the NTIA took "Digital Divide" one further, using the term "electronic redlining."

By the early '00's with the prices of computers and online access falling, the popular call to deal with the Digital Divide quieted. In 2002 C/Net.com was reporting that more than half of all Americans were online, and that Internet use was continuing to grow, even among the less well off. The report showed that between 1999 and 2001, even the use of the Internet for households earning less than $15,000 a year was growing at a 25 percent annual rate.

The notion that the Digital Divide was naturally closing, was similarly promulgated by a Bush Administration that had little interest in issues of digital access, so little that according to Hammond, "it stopped referring to the Digital Divide as being too divisive," and instead used the term "Digital Inclusion." The Administration similarly downgraded the National Telecommunications & Information Administration itself, in "Washington Speak," ultimately 'zeroing out' the NTIA's budget and effectively killing it.

Richard Rapaport is a political and architectural writer who contributes regularly to Edutopia.

This article is the fifth of five parts. Go to part one to begin.

This article originally published on 10/27/2009

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