What was Michael Powell thinking when he compared the very real digital divide to the not-so-real ``Mercedes Divide''? Powell, who is the incoming chair of the Federal Communications Commission, recently said that the chasm between the technological haves and have-nots is similar to the chasm between the people who can and can't afford a fine, luxury German automobile.
Powell's dismissive comment about the digital divide is nothing new.
``I cannot say that I understand the urgency,'' Powell wrote in 1999 as an FCC commissioner. ``The rhetoric is powerful: `A digital divide,' `information haves and have-nots,' `affluent suburbs versus poor urban children.' They certainly are clever sound bites that give the sense of urgency and crisis.'' Powell mentions in the same brief that 51 percent of classrooms are wired. He recognizes that this is a ``bare majority'' but says this isn't really a cause for great alarm.
Any room with a working phone jack is Web-ready, but you still need a computer, modem and an Internet service provider. Sure, poor urban and rural school districts are benefiting from private- and public-funding initiatives, but having a couple of computers in a school of several hundred students doesn't do much good. And in some cases, dumping out-of-date and even obsolete computers has become a practice.
``There's a point where you have to make an investment and not run our schools on leftovers,'' Robin Willner, director of IBM corporate community relations, told Congress last fall.
Access is important. However, the student/ computer ratio is more important. Is 5-to-1 an acceptable ratio? For those of you who think ``no,'' this student/computer ratio is considered enviable.
And the digital divide is greater in the home. Approximately 41 percent of all U.S. homes use the Web but only 19 percent of black homes and 16 percent of Hispanic homes do, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. While having a computer at home appears indulgent, consider the divide between children who have access to books at home -- and who are encouraged to read -- and those who don't. If information is increasingly coming at us digitally, one wonders if the disparity in access to knowledge will increase.
There are people who believe that the digital divide is a phenomenon to be alarmed about. The Web-Based Education Commission, headed by then-Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., has called for a national mobilization. In its report, ``The Power of the Internet for Learning: Moving From Promise to Practice,'' delivered to the president and the 107th Congress last December, the commission said what is needed is ``a response similar in scope to the other great American opportunities -- or crises: Sputnik and the race to the moon; bringing electricity and phone service to all comers of the nation; finding a cure for polio.''
Powell's indifference stands in stark contrast to this call to action. And it suggests that he will not throw himself into solving this problem. It would be encouraging if Powell would use his considerable cachet as chair of the FCC to nudge private industry past its usual business sentiments when it deals with poor urban and rural communities.
The goal of policy-makers such as Powell should be to make sure the digital divide does not grow, and that the promise of the Web is available to those who are in danger of falling through the Net.
Fred McKissack, a writer in Milwaukee, covers culture for The Progressive magazine. firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2001 Miami Herald