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WORLD: Digital Divide is Racism's New Frontier

by Robin ChandlerThe Guardian (UK)
January 17th, 2002

The internet is slow to recognise its responsibilities as an ethical player. If we have racism, a digital divide is its new colonial frontier. Passions surrounding the access and control of IT worldwide have triggered a cultural revolution.

It is less about tangible resources, and more about who has access to information as the new generator of wealth. Statistics from the US (Cultural Access Group, 2000) cite black women as the primary internet users in black online communities, more than three quarters of all African-American users, while only 35% of internet users overall are women.

This doesn't mean a racial digital divide doesn't exist. Computer technology is monopolised by avant-garde elites, advertisers, and e-commerce gangs exploiting the terra nullius of cyberspace.

Despite the Goliath corporate wars, IT has become a fundamental right to access, not a discretionary one. "David" is fighting back, from marginalised minority communities to developing nations.

I am stirred by the implications of race in cyberspace. The new Xbox may be sexy and virtually compelling, but most kids of colour on the planet aren't literate, nourished and disease-protected, so first things first.

Class buys its way into any new commodity and mostly informs and controls the means of IT production including the distribution of resources. In America, the issue of class defines who has access to long-term training and the tools of computer technology.

The European Union, seeing a digital divide between eastern and western Europe, has prioritised IT development in eastern Europe.

What these initiatives strive for are learning communities as a track to democratic culture. The future of linking students and teachers in networked learning communities around the globe represents the best hope for a peaceful century. A digital divide will persist.

English remains the lingua franca of at least 80% of all web sites, and more than half of all of the internet's host computers are in the US. Regions are confronting the digital divide in novel ways.

The Bangalore Declaration -- a plethora of UN projects from Iraq to Romania, and Britain's UK Online campaign -- try to keep the agendas of inclusion tied to the policy agendas of nations. Can a digital divide even exist if the internet is doubling every year?

What do we yearn for as pluralistic societies -- better ways to access cell phone/internet calls or more technologies that invade the space of the mind and body? Sometimes it would be nice to write a letter with real ink.

Is cultural and ethnic representation possible in IT spaces? Do cultural groups tend to assimilate into the white western technology elite? Certainly, ethnic minorities among the middle and upper classes in Britain and the US have been able to maintain connections with families abroad through complex financial arrangements facilitated by technology and class privilege.

Among African Americans in the US, the best educated people of African descent, a digital divide none the less exists. The scenarios re-circulate -- poverty, lack of access, unequal educational opportunities, and the absence of family property.

These have historically marginalised a group whose role in the US economy over centuries was structured to create an "underclass". No excuse, you say? Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen reminds us that "African Americans have an absolutely lower chance of reaching mature ages than do people of many third world societies, such as China, or Sri Lanka, or parts of India".

In tracking the arrange-ments that brought about the structural inequalities precipitating the digital divide, the path leads back to globalisation's ubiquitous projects of free trade, development and colonialism. The movement of human beings for jobs and a better life also factors into the considerations of where the centres of access tend to be, and where IT access thrives.

Access to technology is further constrained by national financial commitments to reallocate domestic spending in ways that benefit "the haves" by virtue of their education. Governments are faced with trading off social responsibility goals for profits. Yet cultural anomalies abide. In Accra, which has only 240,000 telephone lines for 19m million people, there are 100 cybercafes.

But these are not really anomalies. This is still the middle class moving through the world. Has the internet emerged as the "new territory" of manifest destiny, the new terra nullius? Has not cyberspace, its networks and its applications, become the new terra nullius in the global economic pursuit for resources and information?

Lack of education is a tool of demagogues who hate independent thinkers. We cannot afford to wait until 2015 when the Dakar Declaration on universal education is implemented.

Robin Chandler is currently the Manager for the Online Archive of California at the California Digital Library and was previously the Head of Special Collections at the UCSF Library and Center for Knowledge Management. Chandler has also held archival positions at the Stanford University Libraries, the San Francisco Maritime Museum and has interned in museum exhibit production at the Smithsonian Institution.





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