Should Americans be concerned that ethnic minorities are not logging onto the Internet as much as their white counterparts?
Of course they should. Computer technology is becoming the key to future prosperity in virtually every field of endeavor, and the nation's social and economic health depends on all segments of society sharing in that prosperity.But does this mean government should take a role in spreading the wealth? Should the campaign slogan of the 21st century be, "A computer in every living room and a chicken in every pot?"
The answer, ultimately, can be found by studying history. Every great technological breakthrough in the past 150 years or so has become widely available to all through simple market forces. No one talked of putting government-subsidized automobiles in disadvantaged homes. Henry Ford took care of that and made himself rich in the process. No one felt compelled to make the availability of televisions a matter for the social engineers. These things spread and became cheaper on their own.
Government's role is to provide computers in schools and libraries. It ought to educate all children equally in the uses and potential of computers and instill in these students a desire to learn and acquire more skills. Beyond that, however, permanent solutions are difficult to find, and they likely don't involve politicians.
Computer technology already is inexpensive enough to be within the reach of most Americans. Used computers and modems abound, and television hookups to the Internet are available inexpensively. The problem, at its root, is not about money.
The Commerce Department issued a report last week that shows white people are more than twice as likely to own a home computer as blacks or Hispanics. The knee-jerk take on this would be to blame income inequality, but that doesn't hold true. Even wealthy black or Hispanic families are less likely to own computers than white families with similar incomes. The same ratios hold true across all income groups.
These statistics are disturbing indeed. They deserve greater study, and public schools, particularly the lower grades, ought to step up their efforts to introduce everyone to the computer age.
But we suspect the black and Hispanic communities are too large a market to remain untapped for long. Left on its own, the free market should find a way to connect these people to the Net, as well. They must. If not, the folks without PCs will become disconnected in more ways than one, and that would present a whole new host of problems.