AT 6:45 p.m. the lights are on. A group of students have gathered around a bank of desktop computers. This computer class - in Cuernavaca, Mexico - is in full swing.
Mexico, a land of high-tech and no-tech, helps show how far the United States has come technologically. The contrasts are revealing.
Mexico's computer use reflects the basic inequalities of the society. During a 3-1/2 week stay here, I saw men toting ultra-portable cellular phones and talking on them minutes after stepping off the plane. At the same airport in Mexico City, I spotted automatic-teller machines capable of reading my Pennsylvania bank card and spitting out cash. Everyday technology in Mexico is nearly on par with the US - if you can afford it.
But the air ticket that had me sitting in Benito Juarez airport was made out by hand by our Mexican travel agent. Our hotel in the city still uses a typewriter to make out its guests' bills. Even on a good salary, a Mexican worker would have to work two months to earn enough to buy a notebook computer.
In other words, the rich can compute. The poor cannot. Even basic software is out of reach for minimum-wage workers.
Gerardo Alexis Dada runs one of the three largest computer stores in Cuernavaca. He sells machines to architects, store keepers, accountants, and graphic designers. Yet, for every 10 computers he sells, he sells only one package of software. Aside from the basic operating software, which comes with the machine, word-processing, spreadsheet, and graphics packages are too expensive. So Mexicans copy software illegally.
"Piracy is a big problem here," Gerardo says. "People prefer to have the original.... And for $100, they are willing to buy it."
But a quick scan of his software catalog reveals the reality. Few US software companies have dropped their prices in Mexico as they have in the US. Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet program costs $569 in its Spanish version. WordPerfect in Spanish costs $495. And even mail-order companies listed in back of PC Magazine's Spanish edition don't discount software the way their colleagues north of the border do.
Microsoft is bucking the trend with at least some of its products. Although its leading spreadsheet program costs more than $500 here, it recently dropped the price of a few basic programs, such as a word-processing package, from $85 to $50.
But if software prices remain up in the stratosphere, hardware prices are coming down. In Mexico City, Juan Francisco Ceballos Gonzalez will sell you a well-equipped 486-class personal computer for about $3,100. That's still higher than in the US, but it's a lot better than it used to be. Gerardo says computer prices are half what they were a year ago.
As computer prices fall, the technology should make more inroads into Mexican society. That's where the computer school in Cuernavaca comes in.
Open a little over a year, the Institute of Computation and English has 120 students, ranging in age from 8 to over 40. But the majority are between 13 and 18. After they graduate, they will go on to work as computer savvy secretaries or beginning programmers with at least a basic knowledge of a computer language such as Basic, Pascal, C, or Cobol, says the school's administrator, Aracel Garrido Sanchez.
Advertisements for such schools are everywhere in Mexico. If such institutions can train Mexico's next generation of workers, then this country can at least keep pace with the US, which remains several years ahead.
More computing will mean greater demand for high-quality telecommunications and a higher grade of business services. But it can't bridge the gap between rich and poor, the haves and have-nots of the Information Age. Technology is no substitute for social policy.
Some worry that technology might even widen the gap. It's a valid concern. But if it does drive a bigger wedge between rich and poor, it will happen first in countries where the gap is already large.
Mexico may be sounding a warning bell for us all.
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