The digital divide has been a public issue for nearly a decade, but the gap appears to be widening. We are quickly becoming a society of digital haves and have-nots, with large differences in access to computers, software and content. This should be of concern to everyone who believes in maintaining a democratic society. But for me, it is a personal issue.
Born at the edge of a tropical rain forest in Puerto Rico, I came to the Northeastern United States with a family of migrant farm workers, and grew up in the urban barrios of Paterson, N.J., and East Harlem in New York City.
Blessed with maniacal tenacity, I was driven to change the circumstances of my birth. As an eighth grader, I looked old enough to work the graveyard shift in factories in Northern New Jersey and continued to work from midnight to 8 a.m. through high school. Eventually, I transferred from the public schools to a parochial school in Passaic, N.J., where I worked as a janitor after school, cleaning the toilets to pay for my tuition. I took college classes, often walking as much as 12 miles to class. I played varsity baseball, as well as basketball and football. Somehow on three hours of sleep, I was able to maintain excellent grades and score well on standardized tests. Along the way, I managed to impress people of influence who wrote glowing recommendations for college. By the grace of God, these combined factors allowed me to acquire a first-class education at Yale, which made an extraordinary difference in my life.
After graduating from Yale, I began my work career at Morgan Stanley on Wall Street in a unique two-year management training program. It was there that I became fascinated with technology. I continued onward, with six years on Wall Street, five years of management consulting at Deloitte & Touche, and increasing responsibility roles in technology at a number of Fortune 100 companies. I worked for Federated Department Stores Inc., Office Depot Inc., Alcoa Inc. and as CTO at Kmart Corp.; and ultimately became CIO at Owens & Minor Inc., a Fortune 500 health-care distributor based in Richmond, Va.
Of course, technology was not a significant differentiating factor when I attended college in the mid-1970s; personal computers were rare then, and were just beginning to have a major impact in the business world that I entered in the early 1980s. But that is no longer the case today. Computer literacy is a must for any child who enters the world with a lack of advantage and dreams of achieving success in business or any career path.
Yet the divide continues to widen. In fall 2000, the U.S. Department of Commerce published statistics that showed that about 78 percent of households with annual incomes of US$75,000 or more had access to the Internet, while only 13 percent of households with annual incomes of $15,000 or less had access. Despite the intense growth in Internet usage, these facts are not measurably changing. In July of 2002, the "Snapshot" report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Program showed that only one-third of households in low-income, central city neighborhoods had computer access.
Moreover, as computers become more ubiquitous, schools vary enormously on how well they integrate computers and access to the Internet into the classroom. Nationwide, we see an emerging gap between connected and well-connected kids. In high-income families, according to one study, school-age children watch less TV, spend more time online and get better grades. So on one side we have kids with high-speed Internet access at home and plenty of computers in classrooms, and on the other, kids who must share a handful of computers in the school lab.
Placing computers in classrooms is essential, but it is just the first step. Technology must become an integral part of teaching and learning in all our schools.
A positive example is the Friends Association for Children in Richmond, Va., a nonprofit organization that focuses on getting preschoolers excited about technology. Under the visionary guidance of John Purnell, Friends concentrates on providing an educational head start for children from low-income families with music, Spanish and technology classes to enrich the curriculum. I am personally involved with this program, and I would like to see this kind of head start for computer literacy adopted nationwide. It will take money and will. But it can and should be done.
Early exposure to technology is critical. We cannot tackle the digital divide too late in a child's personal evolution. Kurt Landgraf, CEO of the Educational Testing Service, says that technology is the fourth basic literacy -- after reading, writing and arithmetic. He points out that to succeed in the classroom, workplace, home or community, students need to know how to efficiently find, use, manage and evaluate information resources so that they can create and effectively convey information and ideas. As a significant harbinger, ETS is considering standardized testing for computer literacy.
All aspects of life are changing fast, requiring technological dexterity. For example, the group of kids that sees the first showing of a new movie often determines its fate. As they are leaving the theater and even during the movie, they e-mail, instant message and call their friends on cell phones with reviews that either make a movie a hit or doom it. Forget professional reviews, these peer reviews are much more influential. Of all the skills to be developed in the coming century, the single most differentiating factor will be technological literacy.
My children now enjoy a life of privilege. Every member of my household owns a PC at home with broadband access to the Internet. In a model program, the public schools in my neighborhood assign each child an individual laptop computer and allow access to the Internet. The innovative part of this program is that the majority of people who benefit are low-income, and the high tax base in the affluent portions of the neighborhood help fund the program. But most inner-city public schools do not have such innovative programs. I can view my children's homework assignments and grades online. I exchange e-mails with my children's teachers. I send instant messages to my children and receive immediate answers. (It sure makes planning the family dinner a lot easier!) But more than that, it gives my children a chance to compete on an equal level in an increasingly technological world, and more important, it helps the low-income children in my neighborhood compete as well.
Given my own early childhood experiences, I look at my children with pride. My work with the Friends Association for Children is satisfying, and the volunteer work I have done throughout my life gives me a measure of personal satisfaction. But I cannot ignore the looming tragedy that the digital divide bodes for our society. I urge all who read this to consider how they can personally work to eliminate the digital divide. Government, business, charitable organizations such as Friends, and individuals like you and me can all make a difference. For me, after all, it is personal.