Internet for all

Review of

Digital Nation: Toward an Inclusive Information Society

Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004, 184 pp.

The Internet seems to be everywhere. The daily news chronicles its advance on the economy; social, civic, and personal activities can increasingly be pursued online; and cyberspace options are portrayed as cooler, cheaper, and all-around better than their real-pace alternatives. More than two-thirds of people in the United States have access to the Internet; about half of the population has the high-speed connections known as broadband. But should we declare success? In Digital Nation: Toward an Inclusive Information Society, Anthony Wilhelm says no.

The book focuses on a key question: Who benefits from using the Internet? Certainly, many people do. But Wilhelm, who directs a U.S. government program thatfunds Internet projects supporting education, health care, and the distribution of public information, argues that the distribution of benefits is uneven. The “digital divide” —the gap between those people who have and those who lack access to information technology and, in particular, the Internet—is a concept aired less in recent years than a decade ago, but it persists. The pockets of society that do not, perhaps cannot, use the Internet may be less visible now, but there remains a risk that people overlooked in those pockets will fall farther behind in a society that seems to expect Internet fluency. In order to counter that risk, Wilhelm calls for achieving a “digital nation” in which the benefits of electronic communications are more or less evenly shared. Perhaps, he suggests, such even sharing should be deemed a new civil right. It should at least be seen as a matter of social justice.

No one would argue that it is a good thing for people to be left behind during the transition to an Internet-mediated economy. Rather, the practical challenge is to understand the transition itself: How long might it take; what is involved in expanding the Internet’s reach; and when (and why) does residual inequality become intractable, urgent, or both? Wilhelm notes that the achievement of near-universal telephone service in the United States took more than 80 years, and although no one expects the Internet to take that long to benefit everyone, technologies associated with the Internet have taken 10 to 20 years to achieve impact. However, when it comes to spreading the benefits of the Internet more fully, Wilhelm dismisses talk of diffusion over time, which results in have-nows and have-laters, as a politically conservative rationalization. But history shows clearly that some people adopt a technology early and some late, for reasons ranging from affordability to perceptions of value. In their minds, they are making rational economic choices.

Questions of choice are at the heart of what is missing in Digital Nation. In order to adequately address the equity issues that arise in answering the question of who benefits from the Internet, one must be able to answer the question of who pays. Unfortunately, Wilhelm not only avoids examining the economics of Internet access and use, he also attempts to vilify economics as focused solely on efficiency (and associated with conservative politics).

A more constructive approach would recognize that economics puts a spotlight on choice and the consequences of a given choice. If, as Wilhelm advocates, we muster the political will to achieve a digital nation, then we need to understand what the component steps will cost whom, where, when, and how. Rather than assume that political will alone can generate financial commitments by the public and private sectors, we need to know the answers to key questions: What would it cost to accelerate technology diffusion, who would foot the bill, and how would we decide that such acceleration was worthwhile? How should we think about the cost of pushing for better access in certain locations in, say, three years if we determine that it is some multiple of what the cost might be in six years? Is there any entity that would agree to pay the cost? If we place top priority on spending to reduce the digital divide, then what will we choose not to spend as much on, and do we have the political will to make that choice?

The pace of progress

Part of the telecommunications industry meltdown at the turn of the century, a phenomenon that Wilhelm cites as a factor in public and private retrenchment, can be attributed to private-sector learning about costs and about who would and would not pay for new infrastructure and services. The people who built for customers who did not come learned some hard lessons; the euphoria and unbounded expectations of the 1990s are gone.

Thus, slower pacing is not all bad, as Wilhelm’s grab bag of anecdotes and vignettes illustrates. When it comes to how people engage the Internet, whether in education, health care, or civic interactions, there are both exemplary and troubling examples. Because trial and error are typical with new technology, accelerating implementation is no guarantee that errors will be avoided; indeed, it risks the opposite, with errors raising costs. As Wilhelm notes, we need to figure out how to scale up the good models we can find, while looking for or cultivating others. The good news about slower diffusion is that there is time to assess lessons from supply-and-demand experiences, and there is time to figure out how best to reach those segments of society that seem harder to reach but may become easier to reach with time and experience, and not necessarily large quantities of either.

Wilhelm disparages zero-sum thinking, but budgets, even of progressive governments, are not infinite. More of something is likely to lead to less of something else, and choices should be informed by that understanding. Wilhelm worries that today, “some households with modest incomes are forced to choose among their mobile phone connection, cable service, land-line telephony, and Internet service.” Even many affluent households now choose not to adopt all of the technologies available to them. If we want to achieve a digital nation, then we need to understand how and why people make such choices and what the consequences are for different kinds of households.

Similarly, rather than lament the distraction of governments at all levels by 9/11 and its aftermath, it might be helpful to examine the contemporary version of guns-versus-butter choices to see how to promote prospects for more guns and more butter: more homeland security and broader Internet access and use. The policy holism that Wilhelm seeks needs to be framed not only within the context of information infrastructure but also within the aggregate context of public and private investment decisions. Economics can help us think through what it takes to advance on both efficiency and equity fronts. Without it, what is left is the hollow ring of rhetoric.

Progress toward a digital nation will build on a significant foundation, a fact that Wilhelm acknowledges two-thirds of the way through his book. He reports that thanks to federal, state, and local (not to mention private) spending during the 1990s and through the turn of the century, there now exists an information infrastructure that is nationwide if incomplete. There is a “critical mass” in the networking of homes, businesses, schools, libraries, hospitals, governments, and communities. “Virtually all schools and libraries are online,” he notes, and “thousands of community centers offer patrons free access to computer applications and the Internet.” Leveraging this foundation will be important for broadening Internet access and use, but it will not necessarily be easy.

A critical challenge is the lack of basic literacy, let alone quality education, in many quarters. Wilhelm shows that the education divide and the digital divide are linked. Progress in improving education is fundamental to addressing the social inequities that concern Wilhelm, and it is not unreasonable to ask whether that should not be the primary focus now, recognizing that educational reform involves planning for technological and media literacy along with the basic reading and writing kind. It is probably harder to improve literacy than to expand Internet access, but many developments associated with a digital nation, from e-education to changing job opportunities, presuppose at least literacy. How should we think about crafting a strategy that is holistic and that may involve certain kinds of action sooner and others later, given the realities of constrained budgets? Wilhelm tells us to do it, but not how.

Wilhelm admonishes us not to be content with an incomplete and unevenly shared Internet revolution. He provides an important counterpoint to the many voices that focus more narrowly on the profits (or losses) of Internet-related businesses and on the success stories about the Internet’s use. He urges that people who are hard to serve, for whatever reason, should not be ignored, and he argues that a society will best benefit not when people can access the Internet (especially broadband) on average, but when the bottom of the range in terms of access is not too far from the middle (if not the top).

The United States benefits today from the positive vision of electronic communications advanced in the early 1990s, a vision that the country propagated worldwide, impelling private and public investment. If the vision seems cloudy today, that is not simply a matter of politics. Rather, we know better that the problems are hard, and progress may involve new combinations of social action and economically informed pragmatism. Digital Nation provides a call to action, but people who see the proverbial glass as only half full must look elsewhere for guidance on how to frame strategies to fill it up.

Cite this Article

Blumenthal, Marjory S. “Internet for all.” Issues in Science and Technology 21, no. 2 (Winter 2005).

Vol. XXI, No. 2, Winter 2005