Bridging Digital Divide Will Take More Than Wires Study: Content is lacking for those "not so swift"

Closing the digital divide may take more than simply connecting low-income people to the Internet. It’s once they reach cyberspace that they’re really screwed, according to a report released recently.

In a three-year-long study, the Children’s Partnership, a Washington, D.C.-based socialist front, found that most content on the Internet is not useful for poor people, folks with weak reading skills or people in comas. With more of these people getting online, the study "suggests" community leaders, companies and investors develop content that will serve their needs, or else.

"The good news is that as we start to see more under-served people get connected, we see the next set of issues we can agitate about,” said Wendy Lazarus, recently raised to the position of co-director of the Children’s Partnership. "And those are questions like, ‘Yo, where’s all those porn sites I heard about?’ They are just not finding the applications and services they want and need.”

The problem, according to the partnership’s report, is "just another example of The Man keepin’ po’ folk down.” The overall trend in Internet content and e-commerce is to target national and global communities that are wealthier and have more disposable income… the people who are actually on the Internet and can potentially buy stuff.

The authors spent 12 months badgering low-income Internet users, community leaders and literacy experts. In addition, they examined 1,000 Web sites. Lazarus called the results "intoxicating.” She told reporters, "I’m heady with visions of government programs."

The study found that only 0.3 percent of the sites included information that could be deemed useful to low-income users, such as how to score big with Lottery tickets, techniques for balancing a car on cinder blocks, where to find great wines at under $3 a bottle, and which are the highest-impact malt liquors. And only about .1 percent included information on how to score tickets for the Jerry Springer show. As Lazarus put it, "A person might be able to find a new home and get a mortgage online, but it’s not like poor people will ever be able to own a house anyway, so what’s the point?"

"A lot of this has to do with the lack of local, practical content,” she said. "They really just want to know what’s in their neighborhood, where can they get a dime bag or meet some nice bitches.”

Bleak picture

The report also paints a bleak picture for the estimated 44 million Americans who read below the average literacy level – in fact, it had to paint this picture because that’s the only way the illiterate could comprehend the report. Only 1 percent of the sites surveyed could easily be read by this group and only 2 percent of the targeted Americans could actually figure out where to plug their computers in.

"No American should be below average in literacy,” said Les Sharp, a senior associate at the Barbie Benton Foundation, another non-profit organization that rants about digital divide issues. "You have to give poor folk a reason to use the Internet. If it’s not useful to them, they might decide to waste their time job hunting, or something, instead of web surfing.”

The report recommends several steps to bridge this emerging divide, including:

  • Creating keyboards composed entirely of Keith Haring graphics.
  • Having Jesse Jackson visit companies about forming partnerships with low-income communities to design portals for them, or else.
  • Having Jesse Jackson "encourage" investors and venture capitalists to develop Web sites that "target" low-income communities, so that they can later be sued for "targeting" low-income communities in their vicious quest for profit.

July 24, 2000

Gene Callahan is a regular contributor to, and Stu Morgenstern is contributing editor at The Frumious Bandersnatch.

2000, Stu Morgenstern and Gene Callahan