As Gregory Davis navigates confidently through a test program on his IBM Powerbook, he's a testament to both the depth of the US digital divide - the yawning gap between low-income and affluent Americans in the information-technology revolution - and just how fast it's closing.
A maintenance supervisor at a church in Harlem, he says that just four months ago his 12-year-old daughter knew more about computers than he did. Today, after taking an intensive computer-literacy and repair course, Mr. Davis is confident that each click of a key is bringing him closer to a future that was once unimaginable: becoming a network engineer. "I see what I want to do now, and I'm working incessantly to reach that goal," he says. "A network engineer can start at $90,000 a year."
Davis is part of a rapidly growing segment of minorities who are closing the high-tech revolution's racial and economic ravine. A study to be released next month will confirm what others have indicated over the past few months - that computer and Internet use among African-Americans and Hispanics is increasing at a rate so stunning the gap could be closed in a few short years.
That's spawning a host of investments in Web sites aimed at minority communities. And confidence is high among some venture capitalists and experts that as market forces move in to exploit those untapped communities, the overall technology gap will close even faster.
"Everybody who wants to get online will have gotten online in the next five years, and it doesn't matter whether they're yellow, pink, or green," says Ekaterina Walsh, an Internet analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.
Experts credit that growing access in large part to efforts by federal and state governments and private foundations over the past six years to ensure that all schools and libraries are wired for the future.
In an effort to create more nonprofit technology centers - like the one where Davis is being trained - Congress has tripled funding from $10 million to $32.5 million. In his State of the Union address Jan. 27, President Clinton is expected to ask for $50 million to provide subsidies for low-income people to buy computers and access the Internet.
Critics are concerned that rosy predictions about the closing of the digital divide mask its true complexity. They point out most studies are based on phone surveys, and 1 in 8 African-American homes don't have a phone. And there is a difference between using a computer and owning one.
A Commerce Department study released last summer found that the gap between low-income whites and blacks who own computers actually grew between 1994 and 1998, despite plunging computer prices. And the difference between access at home versus logging on at work or school creates a different kind of divide.
"A kid who has access an hour or two a week is never going to catch up to a kid who has access three hours a night," says Larry Irving, who was Clinton's top telecommunications adviser when the report was released. "It's kind of like one kid gets to read his own book seven days a week, and the other one gets to read a borrowed book three hours a week."
And then there's the infrastructure divide. Low-income and rural communities are the last to be wired for high-speed Internet access, an increasingly crucial component. For example, the Urban Technology Center on 145th Street in Harlem can't get access to a high-speed DSL line, and teachers have to go down to 60th Street to get spare parts.
"There's a huge undeveloped market out there," says Anthony Keys, manager of the center, which is run in conjunction with the National Urban Technology Centers and the New York City Housing Authority.
For the past five years, many low-income and minority communities faced a Catch-22. Reports of the digital divide cut against companies investing in them.
A number of recent studies have dispelled old assumptions about low-income people and their comfort levels with technology.
A Pennsylvania State University study found that blacks and Latinos use more premium cable products than other groups. Another found that even though fewer blacks are online than whites, they spend a comparable amount of money in online shopping the Internet.
"The point is that minority groups love technology, and they will embrace technology if it has some meaning for them," says B. Keith Fulton, director of technology programs at the National Urban League in New York.
Venture capitalists appear to be responding. In the past few months, a number of big name companies and celebrities have put capital behind developing products specifically aimed at minority communities.
Microsoft is investing $35 million in a joint venture with Black Entertainment Television to create BET.com. Magic Johnson has hooked up with Mr. Irving and others to create UrbanMagic.com. And Hispanic actor Edward James Olmos and baseball player Sammy Sosa have joined forces with other celebrities to create OneNetNow.com.
The current rate of growth in minorities logging on is already astounding. Forrester Research found that the number of African-Americans online increased to 42 percent, while Nielsen Media Research found the number was even higher, 53 percent. In addition, the Forrester study found that Hispanic households are already connected at a higher rate than whites, 36 percent to 34 percent.
"The Internet is beginning to look more like a mass medium, like television and radio," says Adam Clayton Powell III, of the Freedom Forum in Virginia. "In fact, it's growing faster than TV or radio did at this point in their history."
People like Davis help explain why. In September, he didn't own a computer. Now he has three, and he's building another from spare parts to give to his nieces.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society