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Is the Internet Creating a New Underclass?

Will the Internet democratize society, or will it further divide the rich and poor?

by Wade Rowland

© Wade Rowland

I had the disconcerting experience this summer of seeing my family lionized in a TV documentary as pioneers of a coming information age utopia, and in the same month being personally accused by a publishing company editor of being a reactionary elitist for having bought my two children state-of-the-art computers and an Internet hookup. Somehow, my purchase was giving my kids an unfair advantage, helping to widen the gap between the rich and poor - the same gap that the documentary implied would be erased by new technologies.

There's a lot of this kind of woolly thinking going on as we slide inexorably into the information age. The big fear today is that as we build an information-based economy, we are cutting adrift large segments of the population, those who are not computer literate, and those who cannot afford to buy even the most basic of the necessary new appliances like computers, modems and so on.

Warnings from critics can get downright hysterical: "... the utopia promised by science and technology has turned into a nightmare for the common man," says Prof. Ian Angell of the London School of Economics. "The future is inequality...western societies are already witnessing the emergence of a rapidly expanding underclass."

Closer to home at Montreal's Concordia University Prof. Arthur Kroker has written that, "The twentieth century ends with the growth of cyber-authoritarianism ... compulsively fixated on digital technology as a source of salvation from the reality of a lonely culture and radical social disconnection from everyday life, and determined to exclude from public debate any perspective that is not a cheerleader for the coming-to-be of the fully realized technological society."

We tend to think of any breakthrough technology in apocalyptic terms, and those who don't see in it the horrible end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it are apt to lend to it magical power to solve all manner of difficult problems.

When Wilbur and Orville Wright managed to get their haywired contraption to stay aloft for a few seconds at Kitty Hawk, the newspapers were full of predictions of universal peace and prosperity based on this wonderful new transportation technology. The successful completion of the first transatlantic telegraph link caused riotous, spontaneous celebrations, particularly in the United States. In New York, the fireworks displays were so exuberant they set the city hall alight and it burned to the ground.

It was not the technology that was being celebrated, but the idea that it would make the kinds of disagreements and misunderstandings that led to war, impossible. There was also a heartfelt feeling that linking the world via air travel or telegraph would lead to the salvation of benighted, backward peoples everywhere. They would be brought into the mainstream of civilization, of science and technical progress. There was a strong missionary zeal lurking just under the skin of most of those early enthusiasts for new technologies.

There is a ten-dollar term for this kind of thinking: "technological determinism". It simply means a tendency to attribute to technology the power to rule our fate as a society.

A good example, and one that crops up a lot in writings about the Internet and the information age, is the case of the development of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century by Johannes Gutenberg. The Internet, we are lectured to the point of tedium, is going to cause a revolution in society as wide-ranging as the one brought about by the printing press. I'm guilty of using this tired, old comparison myself.

But more than one historian has pointed out that, for the arrival of the printing press to have sparked a revolution in the sense of fast-moving change in society, two further conditions would have had to be in place: an abundance of paper and a literate population. Neither of these conditions applied in 1500.

Printing was done either on animal skin parchment or rag paper. To make enough parchment to print the Gutenberg Bible took the skins of 50 to 75 sheep; rag paper was scarce and expensive right through to the mid-19th century, when, after hundreds of years of fruitless experimentation, a substitute was finally found in wood pulp paper.

There was for centuries a critical shortage of rags for paper-making. In Britain, laws were passed prohibiting the burial of corpses in cloth other than wool, which was unsuitable for paper-making. As late as the 19th century, Egyptian mummies were imported to the United States by the shipload for the sole purpose of recycling the linen in which they were bound, to make paper.

As for literacy, the other necessary condition for a revolution, it is estimated that 90 percent of the European population could not read or write at the time of the introduction of Gutenberg's press. Had more people been able to read, they would still have had trouble getting their hands on books, which were to remain so expensive as to be limited to a market among the aristocracy, clergy and academics for at least another 150 years.

The printing of books was for generations pursued as a more efficient means of producing traditional manuscripts rather than as an entirely new mass-production technology. Pages were printed on presses, of course, but then they were hand-illuminated and hand-bound between hand-made embossed leather covers, all of this work being done by the same highly-skilled craftsmen who had produced earlier manuscripts. A single volume might be in production for months.

Widespread literacy, when it did arrive, is more accurately credited to the changes in moral and political values encouraged by the teachings of thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson and the politics of the French Revolution and the American Declaration of Independence, than to the printing press.

Illiteracy in Europe only dropped dramatically with the introduction of state-funded elementary schooling in the mid-19th century. (In 1800 half the population was still illiterate; by 1900 this had fallen to less than 10 percent.)

The Gutenberg experience also shows that new technologies have maximum impact only when they fit well with existing practices. The Chinese knew about movable block type - indeed, that is likely where Europeans got the idea - but they declined to use it. Instead they adopted plate blocks containing entire texts because they felt the single-character blocks were too crude to adequately express the artistic side of traditional Chinese script.

So, there was no "Gutenberg revolution", at least not in the ordinary sense of rapid, fundamental change. Change was slow to come and when it did, it was helped along, but not created by, the new technology of printing.

In the case of the Net, we have a technology that is clearly compatible with "existing practices". In fact, the Net is simply an extension of a group of technologies that have been widely used for years: television, telephone, telecommunications and digital computers. Its bed-rock compatibility with existing practices is the main reason for the flash-fire speed at which it is being adopted.

On the other hand, there is undeniably a problem in the uneven distribution of computer literacy; of a shortage of the kinds of knowledge that are needed to take advantage of the benefits offered by Internet access. If problems of social inequity are going to crop up in connection with information technologies or the Net, this is the area to watch.

In its recent report to the federal government the Canadian Advisory Council on the Information Highway, while it worried at length about the creation of an information-poor underclass, left very little room for government involvement in the development of these new technologies beyond demonstration projects, mandating Canadian content, (a technical impossibility), and freeing up the regulatory scene. The report's assumption is that once the technology is made widely accessible, it will work its wonders unassisted by meddlesome politicians and bureaucrats.

There are serious problems with this point of view. In the first place, the whole idea of the existence of a class of "information poor" people in the coming information age is highly misleading. Nobody is going to be information poor (unless they choose to be), because it is in nobody's interest to allow such a deprived group to exist.

In the era of the Internet, access to information is a function of access to telephone jacks. Ninety-eight percent of Canadian households have telephones, and that's because the country's telephone companies realize that ensuring universal access is the best way to build value for their networks: it's how they maximize their profits. You also need a computer and a modem, or else a black box gizmo to make your television set "Internet ready". The price of these basic devices has already sunk to the $500 dollar range it continues to drop like a stone. You'll soon be able to lease them for a few dollars a month from your friendly telco or cable provider.

Information is a very cheap commodity, and it gets cheaper all the time because it becomes more abundant with use. Information becomes economically valuable only when combined with experience and intelligence to produce something called knowledge. Knowledge is the real fruit of the information economy, the valuable end product.

Knowledge is, by its nature, "proprietary" or exclusive to its "manufacturer", a condition which makes it relatively scarce. The process of turning information into proprietary knowledge is a process of creating a scarce product out of an abundant raw material called information. Because it is scarce, knowledge has economic value; it can be sold for a price.

If you think about it for a moment, you can easily see that this process applies right across the range of information-based activities, everything from accounting, education and medicine to the arts. Alanis Morrisette takes information available free to everyone and turns it into a product that's making her rich because of its quality and scarcity.

If there is to be a disadvantaged underclass in the information economy it will be made up of those who cannot afford to buy its products, and those do not have intelligence or experience, or do not know how to apply them to information, in order to manufacture knowledge. In other words, the poor and the uneducated. The more things change, as the French say, the more they stay the same.

The sanest thing I've seen about the information society and its alleged inequities is a simple reminder from a recent report to the European Community that points out that the information society is still a society, and that it's important for governments to continue to address people's problems. "These (problems) are unlikely to be that they have too little information, too much information, or even too little of the right sort of information. Most people's problems are likely to be that they have too little money, too much disease, too few resources, not enough time, too little food or too little control over the levers of power."

To avoid creating a new underclass in the information age, we have to concentrate on traditional social goals like education and income redistribution. We have a political job to do.

Technology, no matter how sexy, will not do it for us. Nor can we reasonably blame technology for creating the problem in the first place. Technology creates opportunities; opportunities turn into problems when we fail to manage them properly.

Will there be a new underclass in the information age? Only if we're negligent enough to let it happen.

© 1996 Wade Rowland

The above article was originally published in the Toronto Star newspaper on October 24, 1996.

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photo of Wade Rowland Wade Rowland is one of Canada's most respected literary journalists. He has worked for the Winnipeg Free Press, the Toronto Telegram and both national Canadian television networks: CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and the CTV Television Network. Rowland writes and lectures extensively on the new media, ethical issues, and science and technology.

Rowland is the author of a dozen other books including Spirit of the Web, a popular history of communications technologies that was selected as Required Reading for 1997 by The Globe and Mail. Other recent books by Wade Rowland include "Ockham's Razor", published April 1999 by Key Porter Books, and "Galileo's Mistake: The Archaeology of a Myth" published October 2001 by Thomas Allen Publishers. He lives with his family near Port Hope and is a principal in the Internet-based corporation, Blue Cat Design.

Read bio of Wade Rowland.

Wade Rowland is available for lectures and readings. He can be contacted at the Blue Cat Design offices.

Learn about Wade Rowland's latest book Galileo's Mistake

Buy the quality paperback release of "Spirit of the Web" online. Read an excerpt.

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Buy "Galileo's Mistake" online at: Chapters/Indigo Bookstores. Read an excerpt.

Other articles written by Wade Rowland:

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