Al Gore is the latest politician to stake out the "digital divide" as one of his issues. The vice president, speaking April 3 at Morehouse College, alma mater to Martin Luther King Jr., focused on the gaps in computer ownership and Internet access between blacks and whites.
That's part of the divide, but it's quickly narrowing. Experts say that within the next five years, everyone who wants to be online will be online. Prices are dropping, and competition among Internet service providers for new customers is intense.
Mr. Gore and others are right to focus attention on lower-income people who haven't yet traveled on the information highway. Some government aid may be needed to ensure they get access, particularly through schools and libraries. But the market is likely to play the biggest role in closing the access gap.
A more problematic divide, getting increased attention, is the gap between what many people want from the Net and what they can get. A nonprofit group in Santa Monica, Calif., Children's Partnership, recently published a study indicating that low-income, minority Web users are particularly interested in finding information about local job, housing, and educational opportunities, and that it's often not easy to come by online. The Web offers a galaxy of information, but it's served up, typically, by "national portals" like Yahoo or Netscape. The local link can be weak.
Some communities tackle this problem by creating their own local networks to gather and disseminate data about school meetings, local business opportunities, church services, and the like. Charlotte, N.C.; Seattle, Philadelphia, and smaller places such as Blacksburg, Va., have put the local scene online.
These are the "electronic commons" of the Digital Age, serving to draw people closer, at least virtually if not personally.
Closing this content divide is largely a matter of local activism. People have to be motivated to get things started, and then train their fellow citizens to add to and use the new services. As the gap in online information of local value is closed, every member of a community, from whatever economic rung, should benefit.
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