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US Commerce Secretary William Daley served as moderator during a Thursday roundtable discussion of America's so-called digital divide, a growing disparity in technology access and computer "literacy" among populations according to income, location and race.

Internet evangelist Bill Clinton launched the festivities from the White House with inspiring words and a lofty national goal. "We must connect all of our citizens to the Internet, not just in schools and libraries, but in homes, small businesses and community centers, and we must help all Americans gain the skills they need to make the most of the connection," the President said.

Thus invigorated by the Presidential benediction, Daley and company made the short pilgrimage to a Washington convention hall, to be greeted by a packed house overflowing with IT and telecommunications executives, community special interest groups, federal and state civil servants, and sneering journalists. [All right; one of them was sneering, anyway.]

Wire the Poor

Daly opened the meeting with a brief slide presentation graphically demonstrating the digital divide and plotting its recent growth. It was indeed evident that rural Americans have less access than urban ones, and that Blacks and Hispanics have less access than Whites.

It was further evident that the divide is growing, as Whites in all income categories get connected at a faster rate than all other groups except Asians, who are the most wired tribe in the nation according to several surveys.

"In a society that increasingly depends on computers and the Internet to deliver information and enhance communication, we need to make sure that all Americans have access," Daley said. "I pledge to go to twelve cities in twelve months to shine a spotlight on the digital divide," Daley vowed. "This will be a Digital Divide Tour. I will be looking to our roundtable members to help."

From there the roundtable got under way, an immensely tedious show-and-tell session during which numerous minority advocates whinged about various obstacles to connecting the particular group of low-income Americans whose interests they represent. No one dared question either that this ambition is desirable to society in general, or that it is likely to be welcomed among those populations soon to be conscripted for regular duty as Netizens.

Darien Dash, CEO of <DME Interactive>, a Black-owned web services firm, best illustrated the lack of criticism with which the task of wiring the poor is understood.

Dash noted that he is personally acquainted with a number of people, presumably black, who think nothing of spending "four hundred dollars on sweatshirts and sneakers. [And] you don't think they have the money for a machine?" No doubt they do have the money. It is a question of values, and Dash unintentionally provides an opportunity to question his fundamental assumption that black folks would buy great heaps of computers if only they knew how cool they are. The Register is not so sure about that.

First, we are prepared for the shocking possibility that black Americans might decline to buy computers and connect themselves to the web because they don't wish to buy computers and connect themselves to the web. What is even more heretical, we are willing to confront the possibility that this reflects not ignorance, not madness, not moral bankruptcy, but a perfectly respectable and rational choice.

Second, we note Dash's implicit assumption that computers are necessarily more virtuous objects of consumerist lust than athletic gear. We are not so sure about that, either. Sweatshirts and sneakers, after all, suggest an energetic life of athleticism, good health and sexual desirability, while computers suggest lethargy, timidity, underdeveloped bodies, and pale, pimply complexions -conditions in which we are at a loss to find any virtue whatsoever.

Furthermore, as slavery was abolished some years ago, we have the idea that black people are no longer under obligation to satisfy the needs, preferences or even the expectations of white people and the business establishments which they own and operate.

We imagine this freedom would legally extend to absolving them of obligation to present themselves in large numbers for victimisation by the "online community" of e-tailers, pornographers, hackers, ISPs, and software and hardware manufacturers and vendors so beloved among the Clinton Administration.

The questions that might have been raised by this roundtable summit are indeed fascinating and relevant. Are there cultural differences at play in the digital divide, not merely economic ones? Is it reasonable for mainstream America to urge computer and Internet use upon minority populations? Is it reasonable for minority populations not to give a damn about it? Should minorities be "educated" to value it as the mainstream population reportedly does? Or is that racist? Does everyone have to espouse the same values, or is the US a big enough country to accommodate the "diversity" it harps constantly about?

The United States would be an interesting subject for those and similar questions, if Americans had the stomach to confront them. There are few countries where issues attaching to race, social class and tribal politics affect the populace so dramatically, yet where everyone from the man in the street to educators to government officials to the media is at such a terrible loss to speak honestly about them.

Dialogue among the university educated, and among all whose words might bear public implications, is limited to euphemistic infant-babble filled with such empty incantations as 'diversity' and 'empowerment', while dialogue among the Great Unwashed, regardless of race, tends to convey a blend of irrational fear, uncharitable speculation, envy and mistrust directed towards the dreaded "others".

It is hardly surprising, then, that a public forum ostensibly devoted to untangling the sticky threads of American tribal politics and online economics would instead have cowered behind politically-correct slogans, meaningless demographic enumeration, and careless assumptions about the desire of American minority populations to emulate Yankee WASP culture in all its glorious dimensions.

A pity, really; we have seen enough of Yankee WASP culture with our own eyes to respect the choices of those who would think twice before blindly embracing it. It would have been nice to hear from them. ®

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