Return of the Digital Divide

This morning’s Washington Post includes a special report on the Digital Divide — based on a forum on the subject organized by the Post last week. (Note: the online version has links to videos of the discussions as well as summary articles).
For me, the forum was a case of déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once said. Athena Alliance began back in the late 1990’s with a focus on the digital divide. Our first conference in 2000 was on Inclusion in the Information Age: Reframing the Debate. That was followed by our report Extending the Information Revolution: A White Paper on Policies for Prosperity and Security. Unfortunately, after the 2000 election, the topic of the digital divide fell off the policy agenda. So, it is good to see the topic resurrected.
In truth, however, the topic never went away. It took on a different tone and vocabulary. It become the issue of access to broadband. The “divide” part was played down and the state of the telecommunications infrastructure played up. It was a technology deployment issue.
And here comes the déjà vu part. Back in the late 1990’s/early 2000, it was primarily a technology deployment issue. And as the Post’s forum highlighted, it remains a technology deployment issue. The discussion is almost exactly the same (even given the shift in IT technology). As the Editor’s Note to the special report says, “It’s time that the country that brought the world the Internet extend its access so that everyone, including the poorest, can enter the digital age.”
But as we argued over a decade ago, entering the digital age requires much more than broadband connection. Access to the technology is the starting point, not the end purpose. Let me therefore reiterate the key points that came out of our 2000 conference:

Point one: Focus on the transformation, not the technology.
The issue of concern is the transformation to the Information Age. It is not simply a question of technological deployment. The end purpose is not to narrow some gap, but to ensure that everyone has access to the expanded opportunities. Our framework should be one of inclusion for all in the broader activities that make up society and the economy.
Point two: Review and coordinate efforts.
The problem has aspects of telecommunications policy, such as infrastructure and standards and elements of technology policy, such as research and development and technology deployment. But it also has aspects of policies on training and workforce development, education, economic development, housing and community development, human services and trade. Reaching our goal requires a coordinated approach — in the private, public and non-governmental sectors – that combines the various elements of providing opportunity and inclusion in the information age. To coordinate policy, the focus of governmental digital opportunity efforts should be the White House, not in any one department or agency.
It is also time to take a new look at some policy areas. For example, a comprehensive approach is needed toward all parts of managing the information commons: privacy, intellectual property rights, “right-to-know” policies and other related areas.
Point three: Work to ensure that everyone has access to the technological infrastructure.
Barriers to access to the infrastructure are many. Ways of overcoming those barriers are also varied, including public access facilities that can combine access with training and other activities, as well as home access. With respect to access in the home, we must return to the question of universal access. We also need to address the development of broadband capabilities – both at home and at work. Both home use and public access points are important. Multiple access public points are needed, such as existing public facilities, training centers, libraries, and after-school centers. For these facilities, sustainability is the key. But, it is not enough to simply provide access. We must work to weave information technology into the operations of community groups in a way that will both help individuals use the technology and will make those groups more efficient and effective in their core mission.
Some of the barriers to digital inclusion are physical: the usability of the technology. This is not, as commonly thought of, an issue only for those with disabilities. The problems of usability and human-machine interfaces affect all of us and research on ways to increase access for those with disabilities will pay off in increased usability for all.
Point four: Encourage and facilitate participation and involvement by all in the digital economy and information society.
To foster participation and involvement, the technology must meet people’s needs – not define those needs. Information technology can help people in their day-to-day lives if it is designed and structured in such a way that it helps answer their questions and solve their problems. Otherwise it becomes a barrier and a source of frustration. This is the danger of what some refer to as the “over-wired” world.
It is important to understand that individuals have different needs. A one-size-fits-all may help some – and increase their participation and involvement – but will block others. By focusing on “demand-pull,” rather than “technology-push,” we can better tailor the technology to meet individual needs.
Development of meaningful content, including more locally-based content, is one of the ways to increase the level of participation. E-government is one important form of meaningful content. But, we must also insure that those who are not on-line are not left behind. No services or information should be removed or dramatically cut back from traditional means of dissemination in favor of electronic dissemination until and unless all members of the community have access to that electronic means as easily as they have to the traditional means.
Point five: Focus economic development on the Information Economy, not the Internet Economy.
The information age will require a new approach to economic development. Key to the process is using and developing assets: financial, social, skill-based, and information assets. We must focus on building the local economy’s vitality and ability to compete in the age of globalization and help people make the switch to the new economy.
Our priorities should include:
• development of processes for identifying and assessing local assets,
• revitalizing programs for training the existing workforce,
• helping small and medium size enterprises make use of IT, and
• fostering entrepreneurship at all levels and in all sectors.
We must also develop and utilize new mechanisms for financing the transformation, including Individual Development Accounts and new ways of financing intangible assets.
Collaborative learning and sharing of information is also important in the larger process of economic development. There are a number of examples of information assets being applied within businesses and with local economies. We need to utilize new knowledge management techniques and old-fashioned communications techniques to collect, disseminate and better utilize that information.
Point six: We need a better understanding of what is going on.
We need to re-look at the data needed for economic development in the information economy. The problem of data extends beyond the scope of local economic data. We need both better data and expanded analysis of the socioeconomic aspects of the information technology. That research must be translated into policy relevant terms. For this reason, Congress should seriously consider re-establishing the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).
Point seven: The decision making process must be open.
True inclusion and opportunity can only occur if the process of decision making is open and transparent. Information technology has a tremendous potential for opening and maintaining channels for general input and advocacy. However, decisions made about the technology can have the effect of closing off the process rather than opening it up. We must insure that all parties are at the table when decisions, including issues such as standard setting, are made.
Point eight: Innovate and experiment.
We are in a time of transformation and change. The speed of that change and the pace of economic activity will vary. Yet the change is real and will continue. In such a time, we must often invent new ways of coping with our problems and new policies for guiding our economy and society. Such experimentation will require great policy discipline, however. It requires a strong, unbiased means of evaluating programs and policies – and the political discipline to follow the guidance of that evaluation. We must also find means to ensure that the evaluations are timely for the fast moving policy arena. The goal in evaluation is not simply proving the effectiveness of an action – it is to facilitate learning. Learning is the hallmark of the Information Age. Our public policy process must embrace that concept as tightly as the rest of our economy and society already have.

The Post is to be congratulated for focusing back on the question of the digital divide. As we move forward, let us hope that our future discussions will be broadened to include the range of issues – not just a question of narrow broadband policy.

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