The Rev. Jesse Jackson calls it “classic apartheid.” The NAACP’s Kweisi Mfume decries “technological segregation.” To President Clinton, it’s the digital divide, the alleged chasm between the information haves and have-nots.
Earlier this year, Clinton unveiled plans to give free computers to poor Americans. He specifically called for $2.38 billion in taxpayer money to finance “1,000 community centers with computers serving the adults of America who otherwise would not have access to them.” Clinton also rhapsodized about the Web’s wonders. “I come from a small town in rural Arkansas,” he said, “and I’ve got a cousin that plays chess once or twice a week with a guy in Australia. I mean, it’s unbelievable.”
This is all very touching, but — like so much else that Washington perpetrates — the Clinton-Gore administration’s scheme addresses a problem the free market already is solving.
Indeed, researcher Adam Thierer believes Americans should celebrate today’s “digital deluge of opportunity.” As his new Heritage Foundation study clearly illustrates, the private sector is slashing prices for computer hardware, software, Internet access and even on-line data storage. In many cases, these goods and services are free of charge.
One needn’t be a multi-millionaire to buy a PC. eMachines produces a 466 MHz desktop for $399. PeoplePC sells each customer a brand-name computer, on-site service, unlimited Internet access and a home page for $24.95 per-month over three years.
You don’t have $24.95? Visit one of Kinko’s 1,005 stores in all 50 states. They rent Internet-connected PCs for 20 cents-per-minute. Juno.com and NetZero.Com are among many companies that offer free Web access.
As if they weren’t cheap enough, major American corporations are giving away computer technology to the digital have-nots. American Airlines recently announced that it will hand a free computer to each of its 112,000 workers. Ditto for Delta Airlines’ 72,000 staffers.
Ford Motor Company declared last February that it will furnish free, brand-new Hewlett-Packard computers and printers plus $5.00-per-month UUNET web subscriptions to its domestic and overseas employees. Naturally, some systems will go to affluent executives. But many more will enter the modest homes of secretaries, security guards and mail room clerks.
Ford’s plan “is really about developing personal skills and making sure that every one of our employees is connected to the marketplace,” Ford CEO Jac Nasser told PBS. “We feel that, if we can mobilize the hearts and minds and the technical capability of 370,000 people around the world then that has a power that is very difficult to match.”
Microsoft has created 15 Technology Centers in cooperation with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. It has installed similar facilities at a Washington, D.C. housing project, a San Francisco Latino center and on a New Mexico Navajo Reservation. “In charity, as at work, we ask a lot of our people,” said Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates. “Last year, they delivered incredibly well.” Through corporate grants, individual gifts and matching funds, Microsoft and its employees donated $25 million in cash and $79 million worth of software to the cyber-needy.
US West has provided more than $10 million in used computers to schools and non-profits since 1997. The Denver-based Baby Bell also confers free, year-round technology training through its Widening Our World program. US West has sent 11 teams of University of Northern Colorado students and recent graduates on the road with mobile computer gear. Since 1996, this effort has instructed more than 110,000 people at community centers, housing projects and senior centers across the company’s 14-state region.
Visa launched an Internet-based program called “Practical Money Skills. For Life.” on May 2. It is donating computers and Internet access to poor high schools and collaborating with some 12,000 other campuses already on-line. “People should learn how to manage their finances before they leave high school or get their first ‘real job,’” said Senior Vice-President Kelly Presta. Visa’s joint website with Edgate.com will include “lessons for teachers, information for students and background for parents to help their children with these issues.”
Bill Clinton arrives in cyberspace as a Johnny-come-needlessly. Beyond computers, Clinton’s fellow politicians — and corporate leaders — must address the simple skills required to handle data systems. “Before we start talking about plunking $2 billion for Internet connectivity for inner-cities and redneck school districts, we better worry about the fact that the failure of basic education does not go well with the computer-based, highly unforgiving environment of the Internet,” says Tom Lipscomb, President of the Manhattan-based Center for the Digital Future. “If you can’t spell, you can’t URL.”