The Common Good

Tips on Bridging the Persistent Digital Divide

Even in our current political climate, as President Obama has demanded that every child has the ability to access the internet, we must develop new approaches to dealing with technological disparities.

In the past, "digital divide" referred to the difference between those who had a computer in their home, and those who didn't. It was very easy to assess. Once the internet became popular, we could figure out who was on either side of the digital divide based on who had internet access. As internet access becomes more widely available, many people are claiming that the digital divide is closing. However, there are still many people on the other side of the digital divide, unable to fully utilize the internet for their well-being.

As a college student, I spent my summers working at a fancy technology summer camp. Our kids, ages 6 to 14, had everything-brand new computers, highly educated instructors, and advanced software. Now, here in Washington, D.C., I volunteer at a computer lab in a temporary housing facility for displaced families. Needless to say, our budget is tight. We have old computers and a broken printer. (It hasn't worked once in the year I've been volunteering.) Moreover, for the last few weeks the lab has been shut down. Despite this, traditional accounts would claim that the kids at the summer camp, with all of their equipment, and the kids at the computer lab are both on the same side of the digital divide because both have access to the internet. But the truth is that they are not. They are on two sides of a increasingly widening gap.

We must start to look at the digital divide in terms of content, not access. The kids at the camp learned how to be fully engaged, online participants. They wrote programming code and made YouTube videos. They designed their own Web sites and posted their own digital photographs. The children that I volunteer with now can only watch YouTube videos, browse Web sites, and look at digital photographs. But they lack the education and resources to actively create anything. One group creates while the other consumes.

In this new user-generated "Web 2.0" world, access to computers and internet is no longer enough, and not allowing all individuals the ability to participate in the great online conversation is not just a technology issue, but also a justice issue. As Andrew Sears, director of TechMission explained in the January issue of Sojourners:

If everyone links to people they know, the result is that a disproportionate number of resourced individuals and ministries will link to each other, while ministries serving under-resourced communities are stuck in a virtual ghetto. The rich link to the rich, while the poor link to the poor.

I'm excited that Obama is working to ensure that all children have access to the internet, but as people of faith, we must demand that simple access isn't enough. In Sojourners' January Web Extras, Andrew Sears offers 10 ways you can help end online segregation. Here's my list of five ways the church can work to close the digital divide.

1. Recognize that the digital divide is a justice issue.
In 2005, the University of California found that 50.6 percent of African Americans and 48.7 percent of Latinos have access to home computers. In contrast, 74.6 percent of white families have access computers at home. Today, 65 percent of all jobs require the use of computers, and it's easy to see who gets left behind.

2. Assess and act on the social and political structures that have created the divide.
Our government is constantly making decisions about technology policies, many of which directly affect the poor. These debates and ensuing decisions are often very complicated and happen off of the public's radar. For example, on November 4, 2008, while the media dedicated all of its resources to the presidential election, a major decision was made by the FCC that will further the movement for nation-wide internet access. It's important to tune into these issue to ensure that the voice of the least of these is heard. To stay informed on these issues, check out www.freepress.net.

3. Use your church to combat the digital divide in your neighborhood.
The technology in churches today is amazing. Everything from the PowerPoint in worship to the church's Web site involves sophisticated technological skills. Why aren't more churches using this know-how to open computer labs for low-income neighborhoods? You could make a world of difference with just four old computers and an invested volunteer. Talk to your church leaders today about possibly opening up a computer lab in your church's community.

4. Integrate issues of technology and the digital divide into your theology.

Having grown up Protestant, I've always been blown away by the foresight of the Catholic Church. In 1957 Pope Pius XII's wrote in his encyclical letter, Miranda Prorsus,

The Church sees these media [social communication] as 'gifts of God' which, in accordance with his providential design, unite men in brotherhood and so help them to cooperate with his plan for their salvation.

Develop your own theology around issues of technology. If you want to go real deep, check out Dr. Brent Water's book From Human to Posthuman: Christian Theology And Technology in a Postmodern World.

5. Diversify your social network.

Our online social networks today reflect a segmented offline world. Ending online segregation is about using online tools to leverage your social network of friends and contacts in order to advocate for social justice. Every person can help bring resources to at-risk communities with just a little effort toward ending online segregation. And be sure to check out Andrew Sears' tips on how to seek justice on your own Web site, blog, or Facebook page.

Matt Hildreth is the interactive media producer for Sojourners. You can follow him on his blog at www.webangelical.com.

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