Our increasingly technology-driven 21st century is moving at warp speed. If you’re not able to adapt to this brave new world, you just might find yourself less and less able to participate in modern life. You will be cut off from the new information-based economy in which jobs, government, health care, business, education, shopping and communication will all be tied to computers.
In fact, by the time you finish reading this article, another major breakthrough in technology and telecommunications will have taken place. Already, cities are developing wireless technology networks, or “WiFi,” where a person with a computer can be connected to the world from anywhere in the city the network reaches. Philadelphia will offer its WiFi network free.
Wireless networking, which allows for decentralized, shareable Internet connectivity at low or no cost to the user, has the potential to connect millions to the Internet, even remote and poor populations, an empowering prospect for community organizations and corporations alike.
Digital Divide Persists
A recent report from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the U.S. Department of Commerce, found computer usage by Blacks still lags behind that of non-Hispanic whites by more than 14 percent, while Internet usage by Blacks trails that of non-Hispanic whites by nearly 20 percent. While the number of Blacks actively using computers in their homes is growing, the gap, or digital divide, remains wide enough for serious concern. Meanwhile, the number of Blacks who play a major role in technology and telecommunications has remained the same over the past 10 years. They face the same decades-old challenge: Getting more Blacks interested and inspired to become involved in professions and careers in the field. IBM, the world’s largest information technology company, has taken the lead in this mission.
Rodney Adkins, vice president of development at IBM Systems & Technology Group, contends there are three major components to closing the digital divide. “When you talk about the digital divide, you have [first] the use and access to technology; second, how do we build the right education pipeline, which leads to the third dimension of having an available pool of skilled resources that is going to compete for interesting and higher-paid jobs. The education pipeline is our biggest challenge. The issue is how do we get people excited and inspired in math and science,” he says. Social patterns established very early in our educational careers influence our interests long term, he argues. “We have to tackle that component first. Once we start to fix the education pipeline, we now have people interested in pursuing higher education opportunities that will generate the scientists, engineers and programmers that will build these technologies.”
The third component to closing the digital divide, Adkins says, is the labor force. “The world is becoming more global. Skilled labor is coming from more parts of the world. We have to keep the United States more competitive. To address these challenges requires the full participation of the community, from the public sector to business. We all have a responsibility.”
Clearly, success in the 21st century will boil down to how we leverage technology. Within the next five years it may be difficult to find a landline telephone in the home as major telecommunications companies turn toward the Internet and cable-TV phone service. Black business owners will find that the Internet has become an essential part of doing business as more large companies and government entities are using the Web to choose contractors and suppliers. Some economists estimate that B2B e-commerce purchases will reach $4.8 trillion by 2006, with $135 billion of that representing minority procurement activity. Government has also moved toward the Internet as a means to slim down its budget. In the very near future, those without Internet access may find it difficult to get assistance as more and more information will be put online. Even the health care industry has made the move. Some medical facilities now have the ability to monitor diabetic patients’ blood-sugar levels remotely, online! Health care and emergency treatments will be available 24/7 on the Web. Your child’s ability to compete in school will also be threatened as America’s public schools, under a government mandate, will be wired to the Internet, and lectures and virtual classes are conducted online and homework is collected via e-mail.
Working with corporations such as IBM, community and faith-based organizations, public schools and other concerned groups, Career Communications Group, a minority-owned company in Baltimore, promotes significant minority achievements in engineering, science and technology. Its goal is to put a computer in every Black and disadvantaged home across the world. For the past six years, Career Communications has held Black Family Technology Awareness Week across the globe to encourage Blacks to take full advantage of the power of the Internet. It has hosted more than 300 events in 30 American cities, as well as in Sao Paolo, Brazil; Johannesburg, South Africa; and Toronto, Canada. Career Communications also works with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons’ organization in Jamaica to help close the digital divide there. Target markets are Black, Latino and American Indians, training these populations to fully use and exploit new technologies.
One Economy is another organization dedicated to closing the digital divide. Working mostly with low-income families and the organizations that serve them, One Economy has joined forces with affordable housing developers across the country to put computers and training centers in every new unit they build. Computers will open up a new world to many, such as the opportunity to pay bills or receive medicine via the Internet. “We definitely believe that low-income people can benefit from computers. There are not enough people out there that are explaining what’s good about having a computer. A lot of the times we will find families that have a computer...the kid may use it for homework or playing games, but often the parents could use it if they knew how helpful it is,” says Garry Mendez, N.Y.C. program director for One Economy. “As people hit walls when they can’t get services, that’s when we’re really in trouble.” For families without a computer in the home, One Economy has designed innovative ways to reach that market. Using a pool of youth working from neighborhood computer labs, they demonstrate computer usage to seniors and others, focusing especially on how the Internet can better serve their lifestyles. One Economy also sponsors Neighborhood Nights, where demonstrations are given on the advantages of using computers.
Ready or not, technology is the future and the future is now! Information technology has already outstripped other industries in economic growth. As the demand continues to outweigh the supply, it is critical that Blacks become a major part of this brave new world. How do we get there? Education and technology skills will guarantee our place. Are you ready for this brave and exciting new world?