- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 1999

Call me “ethnocentric” if you will, but I believe Americans are among the most well-intentioned people on Earth.

This week in Washington I witnessed another fulsome display put on by disgustingly well-intentioned Americans it happens all the time here. The New America Foundation convened a panel to discuss “Unequal Access, Unequal Opportunity: Bridging the Digital Divide.” The word “digit” once brought to mind a human finger or toe. A confabulation about a “digital divide” then might have been about those of us blessed with hands and less fortunate creatures impeded culturally and socially by having at the end of their limbs mere paws.

Today “digit” refers to the symbols used in digital computing. Those assembled by the New America Foundation endeavored to explore the problems facing a society divided by the computer savvy and the computer illiterate. A major focus of attention was the Internet. Some use it. Some hardly know it exists. The consensus held that this was a bad thing. As Eric Benhamou, the very thoughtful chairman of a Silicon Valley corporation called 3Com, put it, those millions of Americans unfamiliar with computer civilization are steadily falling behind. They are living in the woods while others prosper in the high tech cosmopolis. Mr. Benhamou believes the continuance of this condition will cost society hugely. He and his fellow panelists want to get all Americans out of the technological boondocks and into “connectivity” meaning, on to the Internet.

As I say, here were your typical Americans, well-intentioned, and earnest to do good. Unquestionably, computer-savvy Americans are leading increasingly prosperous lives of ease and excitement. Those who are not competent in the use of computers or who suffer “unequal access” to them are missing something quite rewarding. But what can be done for them? Moreover, is the Internet always a boon?

I departed the New America Foundation’s discussion convinced industry and schools can entice more people into computer civilization and should. Schools can drop a course or two in sex education or anxiety management and add computer training. Industry can distribute increasingly inexpensive computers throughout society. But during these learned discussions a chill of skepticism stole over me. Many Americans, indeed many inhabitants of the planet Earth, are going to have no more interest in computers than they have in ballroom dancing.

In typical well-intentioned fashion members of the New America Foundation confab proceeded to excavate ever more far-flung burial grounds of the computer benighted: senior citizens, the poor, the disabled, Latin Americans (only 2 percent use computers), Africans (only 0.5 percent are “connected”). Yet as with the alcoholic so with the computer illiterate; one has to desire to improve one’s condition before any therapy can work. Industry can give a citizen the simplest computer or the most developed. But if the citizen does not want to use the computer, nothing can be done for the wretch.

As for those regions of the globe such as Africa, where the computer is as rare as the telephone, the daunting reality is that there the “digital divide” will probably widen. Hours after I left the conference, a friend in West Africa called. She had traveled 2.5 hours to reach the nearest telephone. The “taxi” she had ridden was stuffed with twice as many passengers as it was designed to carry. And owing to the rigors of the drive and the crowded conditions in the taxi, a chicken died in the back seat. Computer access in that faraway land is implausible.

Here at home we might well make computers more available. We might offer education to the computer illiterate. Yet, many Americans are simply not interested. Tom Wolfe, one of the country’s finest writers and most civilized of minds, not only shuns the computer. He derides it and the Internet. In the fall issue of Forbes ASAP, he has a hilarious time laughing at the computer and its swamis. Mr. Wolfe speaks for millions of sophisticated computer agnostics. Along with Mr. Wolfe and the sophisticates there are millions of less cultivated minds who simply want to enjoy beer and baseball and let the modern world pass them by.

I am not one of them. Computer civilization is a huge leap forward for mankind. The world of the computer illiterate will be improved by the spread of computer civilization whether the illiterates participate or not. Yet even computer enthusiasts must proceed undeluded. One of the questions I did not get to ask the panelists was how much time on the fabled Internet is spent productively in commerce and gathering information and how much time is simply spent “hanging out” and indulging in idle curiosity? Eric Schmidt, another Silicon Valley corporate head from Norvell, came close to answering this. He enthused over the possibilities for exchanging ideas on the Internet. Of course, a lot of those exchanges are wasted time.

Many of the scientific minds who developed this wondrous technology carry with them a high regard for “dialogue.” Such exchanges of ideas are characteristic of scientific inquiry. Yet much of the “dialogue” in the chat rooms of the Internet is mere wasted time. That is another of the heretical thoughts computer civilization has inspired in me. Yet I do not dispute the panelists at the New America Foundation. The “Digital Divide” is unfortunate. It will probably get worse, but history has witnessed sadder misfortunes.

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is editor in chief of the American Spectator.

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