Cover Story

The societal changes induced by computers and communication technologies could be so great that "the difference between the 20th and the 21st centuries may well be greater than the difference between the 20th and the 13th," says Douglas Robertson in his book "The New Renaissance, Computers and the Next Level of Civilization."

But many observers say this mighty revolution could pass over large portions of society, including low-income people, children who are not in good schools, people with disabilities and, to some extent, women.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, households with incomes above $75,000 are 20 times more likely to have access to the Internet than low-income households. But the opportunity to take full advantage of the technology revolution goes far beyond simple access to the Internet. The "digital divide" is also a matter of differences in literacy, high-speed access, education for using computers in more powerful ways, access to continually advancing technology and basic awareness of the potential of computers.

The information revolution "can make some of the historical problems of lack of opportunity extraordinarily more acute," says Yolanda Comedy, senior policy analyst for the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC).

Some government and corporate leaders have proposed and begun to implement possible solutions to close the gap created by this digital divide. But some psychologists say further study is needed to better understand the impact such telecommunications issues are having on society and to ensure that proposed remedies work.

The haves and have nots

Upwards of 25 percent of adults are functionally illiterate and thus handicapped in taking advantage of the Internet. Meanwhile, among minority communities, the issue is a lack of content on the Internet on their culture and in their languages.

And even among low-income people who do have access to the Internet, a primary problem is the wires allowing high-speed access.

"The richer the data on the Internet become, the clearer will become the limitations of the poorly maintained wires," says Mark Lloyd, executive director of The Civil Rights Forum on Telecommunications Policy, in Washington, D.C.

Geographic regions that lack this "broad pipe" of telecommunications wire will likely suffer, say experts. Economic growth will bypass neighborhoods that don't enable workers to teleconference. Classrooms will be unable to allow more than a few students online at once. Health clinics will not be able to send medical images to experts around the world for second opinions. And slow computers will discourage all kinds of information gathering at home.

But even where community technology centers are put in place, "people have to learn the value of using these tools," Comedy explains. Organizers have to carry out educational campaigns to let people know why they should invest time in learning and what access could do for them, she suggests.

Another aspect of the digital divide is the low percentages of minorities and women in PhD-level and other science and technology positions, says Comedy. That will be an even greater problem as the communications structure becomes a larger part of the economy and few people of color or women are involved in creating or directing it or doing research about it, she says.

And gaps between groups with and without needed job skills could appear all the way down the job ladder. Even today, technology companies can't fill the openings they have, and often people in minority communities don't have the experience to fill them, notes Andy Carvin, senior associate at the Washington, D.C., Benton Foundation, which works for the public interest use of communications. That chasm could expand as nearly every kind of work requires a facility with computers and telecommunications.

Closing the gap

But most people who fear the expanding gap also believe that the new technology has a great capacity to close divisions new and old, given commitment from society. President Clinton is one of them.

"We have a chance to have greater equality of opportunity in America than ever in our history," said Clinton in February, announcing at Ballou High School in Washington, D.C., his proposal for more national digital divide funding.

Many efforts are aimed at starting that process. Computer clubhouses in low-income communities help young people to become "fluent" in the media. Technology centers in low-income areas provide machines and the human assistance to get people trained. Ford Motor Company and Delta Airlines recently announced programs to give all their employees computers and Internet access. Industry observers think other companies are likely to follow.

In one effort related to mental health, Gerald Goodman, PhD, psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, is developing a project to introduce the Internet to women visiting an inner-city mental health program. Staff will show them how to pull up and examine a Web site on interpersonal communication. The hope is that they will stay connected to both the Internet and the site for help with future problems.

In addition, the federal "E-rate" program has provided billions in subsidies to connect schools and libraries to the Internet. "Distance learning"--sponsored by universities and others--is expanding rapidly and will likely become more convenient and cheaper. Experts foresee computer-learning programs that will be as helpful and engaging as private tutors.

President Clinton's recent proposal calls for new funding for community technology centers, promotion of innovative applications in underserved communities, acceleration of broadband networks and other efforts.

Psychology's roles

Such efforts point to several roles for psychologists.

If national programs are to succeed in shrinking the various divides, they need to be better informed about the psychological aspects, say observers of this culture shift.

"We find ourselves with little research on the effect of barriers to good telecommunications--which may be the most important service of the new culture," says Jeff McIntyre of APA's Public Policy Office. "Nor do we know how best to remedy the situation."

For example, should the nation push for quantity in terms of just more people being connected? Or should we advocate for quality in terms of high-speed access, better education, better content or better training in communities? Or should it be a combination?

To educate Congress about these issues, APA recently held a briefing on Capitol Hill about the need for research, as well as a session for researchers on advocating for funding these studies.

In addition to research on getting people connected, psychologist Larry D. Rosen, PhD, says psychology has a role in dealing with the stresses and fears that make people hesitant to adopt technology.

"As the technology gets more complex, general psychological reactions to technology play an increasingly important role," says Rosen, who has studied people's reactions to technology around the world. "We can say to people, 'We know what you're feeling. Here is what you can do to make yourself comfortable with it and make it work for you.'"

But Goodman also warns that in order to help, psychology may have some adapting to do itself.

"We may be able to help with questions of why some people resist the technology or to create programs for people who underutilize it. But this cultural shift is rapid. We have to respond faster than we are accustomed in order to be relevant."

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is advancing critical roles for psychology related to learning. NSF Director Rita Colwell believes the greatest challenge for society in closing any divides is to create an "inspiring" educational system that will allow everyone to keep up with this technology shift. But to do that, she says, "We need to understand learning."

That's why, Colwell explains, NSF is expanding its emphasis on the science of learning, building on advances in areas including neuroscience and psychology. Through its newly established "Research on Learning and Education" program, NSF is calling for proposals in brain research as related to human learning, human cognition and perception in learning, social influences on learning, psychology and physiology in speech production, auditory perception in the context of learning and other areas.

"We believe in the power of information technology to bring about the most democratic revolution in literacy and numeracy the world has ever known."

But on the other hand, she asserts, if care is not taken to give everyone the technology and the skills, "This same power could be economically divisive."

Further Reading

  • Benton Foundation, a private foundation with a major focus on the digital divide: www.Benton.org.

  • National Coordination Office for Computing, Information, and Communications, a federal office for information about technology: www.ccic.gov.

  • Digital Divide Network, a private effort providing information on the digital divide: www.digitaldividenetwork.org.