panelists explore 'digital divide' in computer access
is a scene early in "Virtual Equality,"a made-for-PBS
documentary screened Oct. 23 as part of the Virginia Film Festival,
in which a young girl talks about receiving a failing grade on
a report because she was unable to gain access to a computer to
finish her writing.
The scene reinforces the film's main thrust, that children in
inner-city America are not sharing in the information revolution
that supposedly will make society more democratic. Director Lorna
Thomas, who presented the film at Vinegar Hill Theatre, put vivid
faces on the so-called "digital divide," focusing on
a handful of children from the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of New
York City in danger of being left behind technologically.
But for the many educators in the audience and on the panel who
discussed the film afterward, the scene made another subtle point:
children must not be allowed to make lack of access an excuse
for educational failure.
are extensions of our minds, not replacements for our minds. We
still need to learn how to read and write," said panelist
Carol Camp Yeakey, a professor of urban politics and policy in
the Curry School, which co-sponsored the event.
Lack of access to computers "won't keep us out of the 21st
century,"said longtime community activist and former Charlottesville
School Board chair Alicia Lugo, "but we don't want to limp
in, we want to walk in."
her documentary, Thomas interviewed dozens of children she met
at community-based computer centers and settled on a half dozen
children between the ages of 11 and 15. The camera follows them
to school, where they often share limited time at scarce computer
keyboards in pairs or groups. The vast majority could not afford
computers at home.
In one emotionally wrenching scene, a mother is dismayed to find
that her son, Steven, is not taking computer classes at his school,
which she selected for him because she thought it would provide
better access to technology. Focused on a TV video game, Steven
just shrugs indifferently and says he took the woodworking class
that was assigned to him.
need multiple points of access to computers -- in schools, libraries,
community centers, churches or homes, several panelists said.
Nicholas King, an assistant principal at Walker Upper Elementary
School, added, "We have to take it a step further and make
it purposeful access. Š Computers not just as games and entertainment,
but as tools for economic, social and educational development."
manufacturers came in for some criticism, too. On-screen and offscreen,
some lamented the lack of marketing to inner-city consumers.
said she heard complaints that even in making high-profile donations,
computer companies "just threw those computers into communities
without any follow-up."
She talked to some companies, and "no one told us how they
plan to market to these communities," she said. They viewed
the inner cities "sort of more as a charity case, as opposed
to looking at these communities as consumers."
noted that few donations involve putting computers into actual
homes, where children can have almost unlimited access. "I've
heard all the arguments -- 'If you put those computers in these
poor houses, they'll sell them and use the money to buy crack,'"
sees something more sinister in the computer companies' reluctance
to market to poorer communities. It is, she suggested, an effort
to maintain the status quo, to insure an unskilled labor pool
to do society's dirty work -- fast food, housekeeping and trash
"Power yields nothing without a struggle," she said.