March 1, 2000
By Adam D. Thierer
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.
Divided Over the Digital Divide
Adam D. Thierer
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