Leaping The Digital Divide

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CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Rita Braver this week follows the debate over the "digital divide." An archive of The Braver Line is available. Rita Braver's email address is rbc@cbsnews.com.

Digital divide is such a neat, catchy phrase. It defines the differences between those who are computer savvy and those who are computer illiterate, those who have easy access to computers and those who don't. How real and how important is it?

Well, I remember back 12 or 14 years ago, when we got our first home computer. I marveled at the way it helped my daughter improve her writing skills. When she wanted to make a sentence clearer or more precise, she simply typed in a new version. No crossing off, no copying over. So she spent more time on thinking about her work than on the mechanics of getting a clean copy.

It was then that I first started thinking about the digital divide, though I didn't have a name for it. I wondered if it wasn't somehow unfair that some kids had home computers to do their homework on, while others were still scratching out their assignments the old-fashioned way.

In those days we weren't even hooked up to the Internet, and the quality of information online wasn't very dependable anyway. But today, my daughter, now a college student, can access almost any information she needs for reports and papers. What's more, she went online to do research on firms where she wanted to apply for a summer job, and has done much of her communicating with potential employers via e-mail. So, I still can't help thinking about other people's children, and what they're missing by not having equal access to computers.

That's why I've been listening to the debate over the digital divide. On one side, President Clinton, Vice President Gore, Jessie Jackson, who are saying it's the federal government's role to get computers into low income families. Gore and Jackson have even called the digital divide a "civil rights issue." On the other side are writers like David Boaz, who studies computer access for the Cato Institute, and says that the digital divide is closing so fast that the government should not have to get involved. He says, "Ten years from now there's no digital divide because everyone will have home computer and Internet access." He calls this a snapshot.

And minority entrepreneurs like David Ellington, of NetNoir, worry about "the black and brown face being put on this issue called the digital divide." He argues that minorities are just beginning to leap onto the Internet because it's only recently that it has been marketed to them. He also points out, and in fact those on both sides of the issue agree, that the digital divide is much more an economic issue than a racial one. Poor Americans of any color have a harder time paying for computers and online access.

But those who see the igital divide as something closing so rapidly that there's no need for government intervention argue that televisions have found their way into almost every American home without any government help programs. And they say, with prices coming down, even those at the lowest end of the economic chain will soon be able to afford computers.

So the question now is, why not wait? Before too long everyone will be online.

But those youthful years are precious ones. I would feel sad if my child were falling behind in the race for computer skills, but if I could not afford a computer, my child would not have any choice. And I guess I find the argument of former Commerce Secretary Larry Irving a compelling one. He says, "ask those folks who say that poor white kids, kids in the inner city, kids in the barrio, kids in the Native American community don't need it; should wait. Ask them if their kid would wait?"