Many of the nation's technology leaders acknowledged yesterday that fixing the "digital divide"--the gap between the technology haves and the have-nots--will take far more ambitious programs than those aimed at simply getting more computer equipment into inner-city and rural schools.
At a conference sponsored by the Department of Commerce, public and private groups announced a series of initiatives to build new content on the Internet to attract minorities and to train people to use computers.
"It's not about dropping things off and walking away," said America Online Inc. chief executive Steve Case, "but about having a sustained commitment."
President Clinton, in a White House speech timed to coincide with the gathering, said he wants to "slam shut the digital divide," with a goal of ensuring that every American has access to computers and the Internet as easily as to a telephone.
The White House said Clinton will invite high-technology executives to take a trip throughout the country next spring as part of his "New Markets" poverty tour to mobilize new efforts. He also has directed members of his Cabinet to continue to fund reports to assess the scope of the problem and to expand the government-funded network of computer terminals in community centers. Commerce Secretary William Daley said he will conduct his own 12-city "awareness" trek next year.
Other programs announced yesterday included a pledge from AT&T Corp. for $1 million in grants to groom educators and young people in 10 parts of the country, including Washington, to be technology leaders in their communities. The Public Broadcasting Service announced a "Digital Divide" television series that will begin in January. AOL and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights said they would form a coalition to get minority leaders involved. The National Congress of Black Churches created a list of "talking points" to assist black ministers in preaching the importance of computers in achieving academic excellence.
Five months ago, a landmark Commerce Department report found that whites tend to have better access to the Internet than blacks or Latinos, regardless of income or education. The finding that the gap had increased in the past few years despite massive efforts to connect schools alarmed technology leaders. The divide is especially worrisome, they say, because an estimated 70 percent of jobs in 2000 will require knowledge of computers and high-tech companies are bemoaning a shortage of skilled workers.
Still, yesterday's event came with few strong commitments.
Daley started out saying: "To be frank with you, I thought about setting a goal today at this conference . . . a goal where we'd have a computer in every house, like many years ago they used to talk about a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage." He added that while he wasn't going to set such a goal, he recommended everyone else do so.
Wade Henderson, executive director of the civil rights conference, said that getting all Americans online is just one step in bridging today's large racial and income gaps in everything from education to health care. The nation must, he said, recognize that "the digital divide has existed long before the Internet."