Inclusion in the Information Age: Reframing the Debate

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New IT-New Equity-New Economy

A conference to broaden the debate about inclusion of all Americans in the digital economy and society.
February 1, 2000 Washington, D.C.

America is engaged in a national conversation on information technology (IT) and the future of the global information economy. Part of that discussion must concern the impact of these changes on people at the bottom end of the economy.

To a large extent, public policy discussion on this so-called ‘digital divide’ has focused on issues of access to new information technologies. While access is an important topic, it is only part of the problem. The deeper issues-such as the financial and psychological barriers to access to information technology, the changing nature of work and skills, the existing inequality of incomes and skills, the use of information technology and the relevance of content, the questions of control (who sets the standards and who are left out of this process) and the interconnect among the various issues-are rarely discussed outside of narrow groups of experts.

The decisions being made on these topics (or made by default) will determine whether communities-left-behind and communities-at-risk will be able to use the changing nature of economic reality to rejoin the economic mainstream-or whether they will slip further behind. As the conversation on the ‘digital divide’ goes forward, it is critical that it address a broad set of issues and involve a wide range of stake holders and experts. Otherwise, we run the risk of partial, incomplete solutions that do not meet the needs of communities-left-behind. We may also find ourselves with a parallel digital divide-one of differing understandings of the problems and the solutions, mirroring C.P. Snow’s famous Two Cultures.

To help broaden the debate, Athena Alliance sponsored a one-day conference and workshop on the inclusion of all Americans in the digital economy and society at the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington, DC on February 1, 2000.

The conference, “New IT-New Equity-New Economy,” brought together approximately 60 experts, advocates, and interested parties to share information, insights, perceptions, and solutions. Participants examined the broad issues concerning the inclusion of all persons in the information age, identify barriers to inclusion, and define a set of issues that need to be addressed.

The conference began with a moderated roundtable discussion, intended to air the various issues and perspectives. Discussions continue in two parallel workshops covering:

  • access to technology, information, and the governance process; and,
  • economic development.

A report based on the discussion and insights coming out of the conference is in process. While the report is in process, a number of points can be highlighted. First of all, access must be defined on many levels and in many different ways. Access means not just access to the technology, but access to the benefits of information technology: jobs, targeted information, or education. The goal is the creation of an infrastructure that enables capacity building for individuals and communities. This means that the question of “access to what” can only be answered by the individual and the community.

Governance is an important part of the issue of access. It is a fundamental principle that as many people as possible are involved in the process. Both the government and the for-profit sector need to hear multiple voices and understand the specific challenges facing low income communities. Technology can be a means for participation and voice, but only if the process is truly open to all.

Reaping the benefits of information technology is the goal of economic development. Yet, the relationship between advanced information technology and economic development is unclear. A few of the issues raised at the conference include: the quality and skill level of the workforce; the changing quality of work – are their working conditions better, or are they worse; how information technologies can be used by local businesses to compete effectively; the role of the conventional physical infrastructure (airports, highways, warehouses) as well as the new telecommunications infrastructure.

The changing roles of government and the marketplace is another concern. How should decisions be made? Should government define a minimal set of access requirements? Should we encourage content by communities being served? Or will the marketplace naturally address this issue?

These are but a few of the issues and questions raised during the discussions.

Among the conclusions of the conference, three stand out:

  • we don’t really understand of the all of the facts and issues involved in the question of inclusion in the digital economy;
  • we need a means for sharing information and best practices; and,
  • we need to do a better job of reaching out to those who should be but are not yet participating in the discussions.

Based on these conclusions, Athena Alliance will undertake future activities in a number of directions. These include:

  • “digital opportunity” case studies and best practices;
  • follow up local/regional conferences;
  • conferences and meetings on specific issues;
  • discussions on the creation of a research network;
  • working with other groups to inject the issues of digital opportunities into their activities; and,
  • building public support for digital opportunity initiatives.

CO-SPONSORING ORGANIZATION

  • Corporation for Enterprise Development
  • Center for International Development and Conflict Management, University of Maryland
  • New America Foundation
  • The Internet Public Policy Network
  • Samson International
  • The Ellipsis Group

 

ADVISORY PANEL
(organization affiliations are given for identification purposes only)

  • Richard Cohon, Chairman, Athena Alliance
  • Kenan Jarboe, President, Athena Alliance
  • Steve Cilser, Tachyon.Net
  • Steven C. Clemons, V. P., New America Foundation
  • Brian Dabson, President, Corp. for Enterprise Development
  • Lawrence Hecht, President, The Internet Public Policy Network
  • Robert Muller, J. P. Morgan
  • Joan L. Wills, Director, Center for Workforce Development, The Institute for Educational Leadership
  • Dr. Ernest J. Wilson III, Director, Center for International Development and Conflict Management, (CIDCM) University of Maryland