Inequities, Access and Ideas

One of the great inequities of the information age is availability. Those of us in the computer industry tend to think of access to computer technology as a given, but it’s simply not ubiquitous yet.

Earlier this year I moved across town to a house that better accommodates my growing family. For my kids, the move might as well have been to another state, as they now find themselves in a different grammar school. Their new school is about 3 years old, built as part of an expansion plan to accommodate a huge influx of children brought into the area from massive land development.

Their old school typified the 1960s vintage schools common throughout America, many of which were built to accommodate the baby boomer population as it worked its way through the school systems. The old school had no schoolwide network, but did have a computer lab that children attended weekly to help them develop computer skills.

When we went to back-to-school night at the new school earlier this fall, I had the chance to see a state-of-the-art grammar school. This school has a network that connects all the classrooms together, with at least one Macintosh computer located in every classroom. There are still dedicated blocks of time when the children attend computer lab, and additionally, the machine in the classroom is available for the kids to use during free time.

But what bothers me is that this probably is not typical for schools across America. For starters, our school district is both well funded and fairly progressive. It has had a Web site for about 2 years, listing school credentials, student testing scores and school events. It just so happens that people with the financial means to buy computers -- and the knowledge of how to use them -- dominate the makeup of this school district.

When my kids’ friends visit, they are no more enamoured with the four or five computers lying around our home than they are with the stereo or the television. Why should they? After all, doesn’t everybody have computers in the home?

I took a straw poll among my co-workers here at ENT, and as expected, everyone has reasonably current technology available at home. Three of us have Macintoshes at home (for two individuals, it is the only computer in the house), and three of us have between two and five computers in the house. Everyone has e-mail and Web access at modem speeds of 28.8 or higher, and two of us have networks set up at home with multiple machines sitting on it. One editor, who is on the leading edge of the technology curve, even has a mixed Microsoft/Linux network to play with.

Making use of this technology opens avenues that are not open to everyone -- avenues that certainly were not open to most of us when we were in grammar school. For example, one of my kids is researching Brazil, and we’re using the Internet to contact friends I made in Campinas, Brazil, eight years ago while there on business.

Chances are that you, being among the technically elite, have more than enough computer technology at home for your family to access. But again, is this a true picture of life in the United States? Apparently not.

According to a column in the Nov. 5 issue of The Wall Street Journal written by Personal Technology columnist Walter Mossberg, only about 27 percent of American homes have an online connection. Where does this leave the other 73 percent of homes? Granted, it’s likely that the adults in a good number of those homes have e-mail and Web access from work, but that doesn’t expose their children to the technology.

Next week, Black Friday will kick off yet another holiday buying season. Already, the sales fliers are getting stuffed into mailboxes promoting all the great consumer electronics that can be purchased. This year’s crop of sub-$1,000 PCs should prove to be a big hit. But the question I ask is how many of the sales are to consumers that are already caught on the computer technology treadmill vs. first-time buyers?

Here’s an idea. Make it a mission this holiday season to help make computer technology available to somebody who doesn’t currently possess computer skills. You can pass along a working machine no longer suitable for your needs to somebody who doesn’t have the means to get one, or you can volunteer some of your time to help your local public or community school educate people that don’t have these skills. You also may have the influence to help funnel equipment retired from your corporate network to those in need.

If you don’t know anybody to help out directly, there are resources online that can help you find dozens of organizations that do need your help. Try visiting www.netday.org, which is a grassroots organization that helps get classrooms wired for the Internet. Also try visiting http://dir.yahoo.com/Business_and_Economy/Companies/
Computers/Services/Disposal/Charitable_Organizations/
, which lists a number of organizations working to recycle computer technology from the haves to the have-nots.

Doing so not only might make you feel good, it will help somebody else keep up with a world that you’re helping to reinvent on a daily basis.