A Snapshot View of a Complex World

This article was posted at on July 15, 1999.
Once again, front-page headlines are trumpeting a “digital divide.” “Internet revolution bypassing poor, minorities,” USA Today says; “Report Finds Net Users Increasingly White, Well Off,” the Washington Post says. The headlines are based on Falling through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide, a 108-page report from the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The preface to the report indicates that dozens of smart people pored over Census Bureau data to produce hundreds of graphs and charts on minute issues. Sadly, however, the report and the stories about it range from misleading to wrong.

Seeing the big picture

In fact, they illustrate some typical problems with journalism and public debate. We all understand that a plane crash is news while millions of successful landings are not. But the constant adherence to that standard creates serious misimpressions about our society.

First, the emphasis on bad news creates a wrong impression. The NTIA study showed that “the number of Americans connected to the nation’s information infrastructure is soaring.” Despite all the charts designed to emphasize income and racial differences, the introduction to the study made that point clear. However, major newspapers all emphasized the bad news — the alleged “digital divide” — rather than the good news of the rapid spread of access to the Internet.

Then there is the misimpression created by the snapshot view. A reporter who interviewed me about the NTIA study asked me about “this snapshot” of the Internet access situation. That is a good metaphor for a bad way to look at a dynamic world.

Too often, social scientists, activists and journalists look at a particular part of society, frozen in time, and demand action to remedy a problem. But we need to understand the process by which economic and social change happens. We worry, for instance, about 40,000 layoffs announced by AT&T, failing to notice that American companies created 2 million jobs in the preceding 12 months, incrementally, day by day, company by company.

In this, NTIA’s third snapshot report on Internet access, journalists are urged to look at a single point in time, about seven months ago, in a rapidly changing field and judge the distribution of computers and Internet access at that point. But information technology is spreading more rapidly than any new technology has spread in history.

Historically, new technologies spread slowly. First, the rich get them, then the middle class and the poor — but eventually everybody gets television, telephones and so on. Today 98% of Americans have televisions, and 94% have phones. The newer the technology, it seems, the more rapidly it spreads.

As Michael Cox and Richard Alm point out in Myths of Rich and Poor, it took 46 years for a quarter of the population to get electricity and 35 years for the telephone to spread that far. But it took only 16 years for a quarter of American households to get a personal computer and only seven years for Internet access.

When you look at the process, not the snapshot, the progress is amazing. It is sheer scaremongering to write reports about “information haves and have-nots.” The reality is a little less exciting: have-nows and have-laters. Families that do not have computers now are going to have them in a few years.

The statistics you didn’t hear

Another flaw apparent in the report is that of statistical manipulation. You can prove anything with statistics.

The NTIA tries to prove that despite the fact that overall access to information technology is “soaring,” nevertheless “a digital divide … is actually widening over time.” Specifically, the report says, “The digital divide has turned into a ‘racial ravine.’ … With regard to computers, the gap between white and black households grew 39.2% (from a 16.8 percentage-point difference to a 23.4 percentage-point difference) between 1994 and 1998.”

But let’s go to the data (Chart I-15). In 1994, 27.1% of white households had computers, and so did 10.3% of black households. In 1998, whites were up to 46.6%, and blacks to 23.2%.

One way to read those numbers is the way NTIA did: The gap grew from 16.8 points to 23.4 points. Another interpretation is this: In 1994, whites were 2.6 times as likely as blacks to have a computer; in 1998 they were only 2.0 times as likely. And here is another way: From 1994 to 1998, computer ownership by whites increased 72%, while ownership by blacks increased 125%.

That is good news all around, with black ownership rates increasing faster. NTIA picked the reading that would justify claiming the existence of a “racial ravine.”

What is really happening is that computer ownership and Internet access are spreading rapidly through society, with richer households getting there first. On average, whites are richer than blacks, and they have more computers.

The NTIA plays down the fact that Asian households at every income level are more likely than whites to have a computer, and the Washington Post and USA Today ignored Asians in their front-page stories on the racial divide. Why? Maybe the fact that some racial minorities are more likely than whites to have a computer would make the “racial ravine” seem a little less sinister.

Similarly, when “a child in a dual-parent black family is almost four times as likely to have [Internet] access as a child in a single-parent black household,” the problem is not a digital divide. The problem is that too many black children are growing up in single-parent households. Whatever the solution is for that problem, it will not be found at the Federal Communications Commission.

Free enterprise is the answer

One of the themes of this report, coincidentally, is also one of Al Gore’s campaign themes: putting more computers with Internet access in the schools. American schools do have a lot of problems, and we ought to solve them. But inner-city schools in poor neighborhoods already spend lots of money; money is not their problem.

Schools need to teach children to read and write, and they do not need Internet access for that. Children, especially poor children, would be better off if we bought McGuffey’s Readers for every school. Internet access will not help children who cannot read, write and calculate. But the education establishment is shortsighted and overly responsive to fads and politics, so this is its latest lament: How can you expect us to teach kids if we do not have the latest technology?

I am not a Luddite. I think market-driven schools would use technology intelligently. I have every confidence that soon the free-market revolution and the technological revolution will bypass the government-monopoly schools, and we’ll see technology revolutionizing the delivery of education. But when that happens, it will be delivered by free enterprise, not politics.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of Libertarianism: A Primer.