'Technology for All?' Up to the Private Sector

FRAMINGHAM (03/13/2000) - During his State of the Union address, President Clinton asked high-tech leaders to work with him to help the government close the "digital divide" and open up opportunities for everyone. The speech highlighted the popularity of the digital divide as a metaphor that has swiftly become a staple of editorial pages and political speeches. But it also illustrates the downside of catch-call sound bites that obscure rapidly changing societal trends.

A closer look at how Americans view computers and the Internet reveals a more complex reality that poses new challenges for government policy-makers and corporate leaders in the digital economy. Our comprehensive study of more than 1,000 Americans - a joint project of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University and the Center for Survey Research at the University of Connecticut - describes a diverse "digital landscape," ranging from sophisticated "technophiles," who have integrated computers into their daily work and home lives, to "9-to-5 users," who only use limited computer applications at work, to "digital exiles," who don't use computers at all. (You can see the report at www.heldrich.rutgers.edu/news.cfm.)Unlike earlier periods in U.S. history when workers feared technology's progress, Americans today express optimism about the current and potential benefits of the digital age - a view held regardless of region, race, gender, age, income level or education. Our study shows that nearly six in 10 Americans believe computers have changed their lives for the better and nearly eight in 10 believe that new information technologies are good for the economy. Only the digital exiles know they have been left out and left behind.

Americans say they want more than just high-speed Internet connections and fast computers. They're demanding that technology deliver on the promise of a better quality of life through widespread applications such as telecommuting, anytime/anywhere education, better health care and consumer empowerment.

For example, four in 10 workers told us that new technologies should allow them to work from home at least part of the week, but only 16 percent have that opportunity. A sizable majority (61 percent) said they would like to tap distance-learning technologies, but only about one quarter (26 percent) have participated. A smaller but significant number (one third) expressed strong interest in using the Internet to make their next career moves.

After we connect the digital exiles - which should be a high priority in the world's richest nation - transforming hardware and software into tools for improving American workers' lives is the next frontier of corporate and public policy. This will pose an enormous challenge for the computer industry.

Ford Motor Co., Delta Air Lines Inc. and a few other employers have taken a historic first step by providing computers and Internet access to all of their employees for home use. This idea will sound good to many companies, but the private and public sectors must work together to give people more than access.

The federal government should continue to provide leadership that encourages and promotes exemplary, broad-based IT applications that empower users. But the computer industry and technology executives have the responsibility to envision, create and promote those applications that will make the digital revolution a liberating experience for all.

CARL E. VAN HORN is director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Contact him at vanhorn@rci.rutgers.edu.

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