Netting Everyone

The Internet is wafting humanity into the 21st century. But Internet euphoria is mixed with numerous Net concerns, and none is greater than the worry that a substantial part of the population will be left in the dust as the rest of us glide into cyberspace.

In the United States, statistics analyzed by the Commerce Department have tended to deepen this worry. The department's 1999 survey of Internet use in American households found an online "racial ravine" separating white and Asian-American middle-class Web surfers from black and Hispanic users of the technology.

In fact, this may be more an economic than a racial divide, with poorer families, understandably, slower to buy the hardware needed to access the Net. An even more profound reason for a gap in Internet use is disparity in educational level and literacy. The new technology emphasizes words, codes, and numbers. Unlike TV watching, there's nothing passive about understanding and negotiating the Web.

That said, some powerful factors are pushing toward greater access to the Internet:

*In Congress, bills are pending to require cable systems to carry high-speed Internet service and to loosen the restrictions on regional Bell companies to allow them to bring the Internet to rural areas. Last December President Clinton announced a national goal of connecting every American to the Net. This is a follow-up on the administration's long-proclaimed goal of wiring every school in the country. (The government estimates 80 percent of classrooms are currently hooked to the Net.)

*Increasingly, Internet-capable computers are common in workplaces and public places like libraries, as well as in homes. The Commerce Department survey looks specifically at home use, where economic constraints are greatest. Other surveys asked people whether they regularly use the Net, without specifying where. Those surveys show a smaller gap between technology haves and have-nots.

*The technology and its cost are ever-changing. Computers to access the Web have dropped below $1,000. Internet service is typically worked into the price, lowering the cost of the hardware, though obligating the buyer to monthly fees.

Increasingly, the hardware will veer away from computers toward even cheaper appliances designed solely for Internet access. Web-TV is another development.

The economic barriers are coming down. People from all income groups and ethnic backgrounds are likely to eventually find a way to bring the Net into their homes.

The educational barrier may be more difficult. The drive to improve public education should converge with the goal of universal access to information technology. We need not only Internet access, but the ability as individuals to make constructive use of this powerful tool.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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