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March 1, 2000

Divided Over the Digital Divide

By

Talk of solving America's "digital divide" is the topic du jour among politicians these days. President Clinton has called for "a national crusade" to ensure that every American has a home computer and Internet access. His latest budget proposes dozens of new high-tech pork-barrel spending programs to bridge the gap between America's technological "haves" and "have nots."

But put aside for a moment the question of how serious this problem is and consider a more profound question: Do Americans even need computers and Internet access to lead normal, productive lives? A growing chorus of voices - including, ironically, many liberal theorists - say no. In fact, some argue that computer access may actually harm the less well-off.

For example, New Republic columnist Robert Wright says that "subsidizing household Internet access makes little policy sense," since "poor people - like people generally - will need less encouragement to get online" as the World Wide Web becomes more of an entertainment medium. He also fears that because the poor are purportedly more susceptible to advertising and deceptive commercial practices, "any bridge across the digital divide will just lead poor people into consumerist quicksand."

Freelance journalist Todd Oppenheimer agrees, noting in a recent Salon.com column that "this has the feel of one of those well-meaning partnerships with industry in which the government gives away the store." Oppenheimer, who wrote an award-winning piece for The Atlantic Monthly in 1997 titled "The Computer Delusion," has also argued that the "overheated campaign" to put computers in every classroom may be crowding out other priorities, such as teaching children fundamental skills and ensuring that teachers are well-trained.

Meanwhile, noted computer guru-turned-critic Clifford Stoll has authored books with titles such as "High-Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don't Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian," and "Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway," which question America's new-found obsession with computers and the Internet.

Finally, the Stanford University Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society recently released a study arguing that as people become more wired and spend more time on-line, they alienate themselves from traditional societal functions and activities. Specifically, 13 percent of those surveyed say they spend less time with family and friends, 8 percent attend fewer social events, 34 percent read fewer newspapers, 59 percent watch less television, 25 percent spend less time shopping in stores, and 25 percent spend more time working at home.

With the emerging backlash against computers so at odds with the pro-Net rhetoric espoused by high-tech saviors, who's a "Digital New Dealer" to believe? The ones who clamor for more federal funding for computers or those who bemoan the increasing amount of time citizens are spending in front of those machines instead of pursuing more noble endeavors?

Here's one possible solution that will get liberals out of their logjam: Buy every man, woman and child a computer and Internet access, but then regulate the amount of time they're allowed to spend on-line each day. They could even put time clocks on our computers and tax us for "excessive" time spent online. The regulatory possibilities are staggering.

In all seriousness, it's time for politicians to wise up. The "digital divide" is a sham - an excuse for Big Government to court Silicon Valley with fistfuls of corporate-welfare dollars in exchange for campaign contributions. Computer ownership and Internet access are growing at a rapid clip across all income groups. Everyone in America who wants to be "wired" will be able to do so for next to nothing within a few years.

Not long ago, few people believed we'd be throwing away cameras after snapping one role of photos. Not long from now, when the age of disposable computing is in full swing, we'll look back and laugh at the clunky metal boxes we bought and placed on our desks.

Sadly, none of this, not even the skepticism of his fellow liberals, is likely to deter the president from trying to bridge the "digital divide." And why would it? The easiest problems to solve are those that don't exist.

Adam D. Thierer is a former Walker fellow in economic policy at The Heritage Foundation.

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