Mar 1 2000

Digital Divide Provides Opportunities for Corporate Spin

How to Win Puff Coverage by Donating Computers

Articles on corporate donations of computers to schools are commonplace these days. Indeed, if you work for a corporation and you’re looking for positive publicity, or the sort of thing that PR spindoctors call “corporate goodwill,” donating a handful of computers to a local school is a pretty sure bet.

You’ll pick an impoverished one, of course: The schools in wealthy neighborhoods already have computers; many have a few in every classroom. And it has to be computers. True, lots of impoverished schools don’t have enough textbooks, or enough teachers, or even enough money for pencils, chalk and toilet paper. But you can’t really hold a press conference announcing that you are donating pencils or toilet paper to a low-income school, because the thought that schools have to rely on corporate largesse to buy toilet paper makes people uncomfortable.

No, computers are ideal, mostly because they’re still thought of as a luxury item. Unlike textbooks, it’s okay that only wealthy schools are guaranteed to have them; when poor children are given access to computers, this is still viewed as an act of generosity, and not the fulfillment of a basic right.

“Racial ravine”

Donations of technology to the needy, and press conferences touting them, have become especially popular of late, in the wake of a study released last summer by the U.S. Department of Commerce. The study, entitled “Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide,” revealed that the poor and particularly people of color are getting left behind in our increasingly wired society, creating what the Commerce Department’s Larry Irving calls a “racial ravine” in computer and Internet usage.

Households with annual incomes of $75,000 or higher, the study found, were more than 20 times as likely to have access to the Internet as the poorest households. This disparity, moreover, did not seem to be linked solely to income. A low-income white family, for instance, is still three times as likely to have access to the Internet as a comparable black family, and four times as likely as a poor Latino family. Most disturbingly, perhaps, the data indicate that the divide is actually getting bigger, not smaller, as well-off whites are fast outpacing other Americans in getting online.

The release of “Falling Through the Net” spawned a flurry of media coverage, with most of the major media outlets running stories with titles like “Computer Age Leaving Many Blacks, Hispanics Out of Touch” (Chicago Tribune, 7/9/99) and “Online Racial Divide Grows” (Associated Press, 7/8/99). The fact that the press is covering the digital divide at all is significant. Any discussion on the potential of the Internet to create societal divisions represents a refreshing switch from years of tech industry hype that presented the Internet as a “raceless” and “classless” medium that promised to educate the uneducated and give voice to the voiceless.

Unfortunately, however, coverage of the issue still fails to provide an honest portrayal of the divide, and the challenges inherent in solving it. Instead of an issue with profound impact on the civil rights and economic survival of entire communities, this new type of “information segregation” is presented as a small kink to be worked out through charity and the free markets.

An op-ed in the New York Times (9/1/99), headlined “Business Is Saving Schools, Not Tainting Them,” hailed corporate donations of computers as “the best way to bridge the ‘digital divide’…and [to help] equalize the financing and tax base disparities between districts.” Its author, Peter Weigand, lauded big business for funding computer programs in schools that “a few years ago were scrounging for dollars just to buy textbooks.” Weigand claimed that CEOs like Bill Gates “have done as much as most professional educators to bring quality education to America’s children.” That op-ed was picked up by papers like the Sacramento Bee (9/3/99) and Philadelphia Daily News (9/7/99).

Weigand is not the only person applauding corporate America for its big-heartedness. When Bill Gates, a man estimated to be worth about $90 billion, announced in September that he would be donating $1 billion over the next 20 years toward scholarships for minority students interested in engineering and the sciences, press outlets all over the country praised him for stepping “forward boldly to try to narrow the gap” (San Jose Mercury News, 9/20/99) and “providing an important role model for other high tech firms to emulate” (Chicago Tribune, 9/19/99).

In fact, lots of businesses are already doing it, and the print media are obliging them with headlines that read like press releases. In an article headlined “MasterCard Gives Wentzville Schools 300 Computers,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (7/1/99) called the credit giant’s donation a “symbol of the company’s commitment to the region.” Likewise, in “Lapping up Laptops: Intel Takes Kids Inside to See What Makes Computers Tick,” the San Jose Mercury News (8/25/99) praised Intel for sponsoring a workshop on computer programming for about 100 Bay Area minority students and providing them with donations of outdated computers from its corporate headquarters. “They may never have paid much attention to the slogan ‘Intel inside,’ but a group of young students from disadvantaged communities in Silicon Valley got a chance to go inside Intel on Tuesday,” wrote the Mercury News‘ Deborah Clayman.

Digital disenfranchisement

In some cases, moreover, corporations use this type of high-profile philanthropy to cover up practices that could actually widen the digital divide, and newspapers who run this type of flattering coverage without giving attention to the substantive issues of access play right into that strategy. Gates’ Microsoft, for instance, has been found by a U.S. district judge to engage of the type of anti-competitive practices that could enable it to dominate the market, and thus set the cost for its software and operating systems well out of the reach of most low-income families and schools.

Likewise, while several media outlets, including the Associated Press (7/13/99) and Newsweek (7/14/99), covered AT&T’s decision to team up with the NAACP to build computer centers in black and Latino neighborhoods in 20 cities, none bothered to mention that AT&T is one of the companies most fiercely lobbying Congress to end the e-rate, a government program that taxes long-distance carriers to help schools and libraries wire their buildings for Internet access.

Considering what is at stake here, one might hope that a few voices in the national press would raise the concern that forcing low-income communities and public schools to rely on scattered handouts to finance technology programs is not a solution at all. The U.S. Department of Labor has estimated that almost 50 percent of all workers currently use a computer on the job, with these workers earning about 43 percent more than their less wired peers. Furthermore, says Larry Irving, by the year 2000 about 60 percent of all new jobs will require technology skills.

Of course, it is not just the work world that is moving online, but our entire culture. When everything from daily newspapers to government information exists primarily in an electronic format, as many pundits are happily suggesting it someday will, what happens to those people who cannot access it? That computer training, more than an educational luxury, is becoming a civil rights issue is a story you won’t see covered in the national news. You’re far more likely to see the “computers for the poor” story covered as a piece of feel-good corporate PR.