CJTC — The Center for Justice, Tolerance & Community University of California, Santa Cruz
CJTC — The Center for Justice, Tolerance & Community

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The Digital Divide and a Different Network

By Manuel Pastor
San Jose Mercury News
Thursday, April 6, 2000

With the most recent report from the federal government suggesting that racial and income gaps in computer and Internet usage are widening, President Clinton has decided to shine a spotlight on the so-called “digital divide.” The Valley’s own Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network has joined the chorus, declaring this the year to address disparities in access to technology and opportunity.

While the attention is welcome, policy should be guided by a recognition that the problem is not the digital divide per se but rather the divide in the digital economy. In fact, the broader problem of income distribution plaguing the Valley and the U.S. stems not only from technology but rather from the very things that the new economy values most: skills, networks, and speed.

The skills question is familiar: Over the last 25 years, the returns on education have increased even as educational opportunities have become more unequal. Innovative programs, like the Networking Academy programs launched by Cisco, are helping close the gap by providing specific technical training for students less likely to go to college. The Valley’s excellent community colleges are encouraging others to make the transition to a four-year university.

But equally important is the nature of social and professional networks. After all, the Valley’s economy is premised on networks. Internet firms start here — where land is scarce and labor expensive — because they know they can find the partners they need. High-end workers curse housing prices but know that the personal and professional ties cultivated here are the region’s biggest asset. The poor also have their networks but the reward for using them is low. Recent research suggests that Latino immigrants with strong social or “bonding” networks have a much higher probability of finding employment — but since many of he people they know are poor, the use of these networks actually yields lower wages than using an employment agency or some other formal mechanism. The pattern suggests a need for “bridging” networks, including mentoring and improved job placement.

What about speed? The need for flexibility has led to a flowering of temporary employment, with the temp industry creating 50 percent more jobs than computer services between 1993 and 1998. Meanwhile, the state’s most recent employment projections suggest that he largest number of new jobs will go to cashiers, not engineers. Not far behind are guards, a phenomenon which highlights the economic costs of growing disparity. And while 25 percent of the state’s new jobs will require only a short period of on-the-job training.

While some might see this as the clash of the old and the new, it is really all of the same cloth. Firms facing market volatility seek to displace those costs onto easily-dismissed temporary workers. Software engineers’ 16-hour days are inexorably coupled with an army of day care providers, restaurant workers, dry cleaners and other service workers. Addressing this will require that business and political leadership truly understand that the new economy has a mix of high- and low-wage labor. Policies to increase very low incomes — a higher minimum wage, a more generous earned income tax credit, portability of health care and pensions for temp workers — must be part of the mix as well.

When I hear about bridging the “digital divide,” I think of my own father. An 85-year old immigrant with a six-grade education, he worked all his life as a janitor and then an air conditioner repairman. His current hobby involves restoring discarded computers to working order. After a long discourse one morning on his problems with resetting the BIOS configuration for an old PC, my very impressed, tech-savvy children redid his screen-saver. It now reads: “Grandpa rocks the house.”

But he house that Grandpa owns emerged because a community college training course allowed him to upgrade beyond janitorial status, networks reached out to help him, and union protections set a floor beneath his income. The issues of networks and labor standards may raise more conflicts that computers and education. But they will be an essential part of any long-lasting solution to the divide in the digital economy.