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High Technology and Low-Income Communities: Prospects for the Positive Use of Advanced Information Technology

Editor: Donald A. Schon, Bish Sanyal, William J. Mitchell
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998
Review Published: July 2003

 REVIEW 1: Gracie Lawson-Borders

The litany of metaphors used to describe the growth of the World Wide Web and the Internet fall short in describing the social, political, and cultural impact the medium has had on society. The use of such terms as the information highway and cyberspace only tap the surface in describing the acceleration in access to information brought on by advanced technologies and the use of personal computers and networks. In High Technology and Low-Income Communities: Prospects for the Positive Use of Advanced Information Technology, a series of sixteen essays explore various aspects of technology and its availability to different groups in our society. Co-editor Donald A. Schon was a professor emeritus and senior lecturer in the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT. Schon died in 1997 and his co-editors dedicated the book to his memory. The other co-editors are Bish Sanyal, chair of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and William J. Mitchell, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, both at MIT. The book is the product of a colloquium on technology and low-income communities developed by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT in 1996. The analyses and policy initiatives proposed by the authors are part of the continuing discussion to address the differences in exposure and accessibility to technology.

The book is divided into two parts; part one places the various components of technology, computers, and access in context. The second part of the book addresses strategies for taking action to create a more equitable environment for accessibility to technology.

The book's premise is to facilitate a discussion of technology and accessibility issues and the prospects for assuring that members of low-income communities have the opportunity to utilize technology in similar ways as their counterparts in other communities. The adage that floats around in the information age of creating "haves and have-nots" is examined on several layers by the authors. In the first part of the book, the authors examine what effect technology has had on society. The tone is more pessimistic toward technology and the issue of equitable access across communities. The authors explore such issues as the need for increased knowledge and skills to adapt and benefit from advance technologies. For example, Manuel Castells' "The Informational City is a Dual City: Can it be Reversed?" examines the complexity of issues created by advanced technology. Castells argues that technology has changed expectations for jobs, skills, economics, and community environments. He argues that a "space of flows" has been created by technology that links "different spatial locations into a new spatial process that reintegrates the functional unity of different elements in distant locations through information technology" (30). Thus, the public sphere is no longer physical but informational, and activities are exchanged in a non-temporal way in a nefarious linkage of computer networks floating ideas and information through space. The unskilled, poor communities, and minorities are the most vulnerable to being disconnected in these new electronic spaces. Without access there is not opportunity to obtain the knowledge and skills to enhance the communication experience.

Julian Wolpert's essay, "Center Cities as Havens and Traps for Low-Income Communities: The Potential Impact of Advanced Information Technology," taps into the concerns centering around changes in low-income, inner-city communities as technological advancements took their toll as education, skills and employment needs shifted. The education and training has not kept up with the technology in low-income communities. Many people are not equipped for the jobs that will require more skills and education. Wolpert argues many inner-city communities are "havens and traps" where low-income people received what he calls "mailbox income" through such programs as Aid to Families with Dependent Children or Supplemented Security Income. Funds from these agencies provided some support to individuals, but it was not enough income to elevate their educational or economic status and move them into working class or middle income areas. The social system, non-profit, and governmental assistance in these areas has eroded with fewer services, although the need for assistance has not abated. The policy switch from concerns about inner-city employment, health, and poverty conditions on a national scope in 1960s and 1970s to today's more locally based, non-profit, and private-based alliances for policies and strategies has taken inner cities out of the forefront of discussions.

The digital revolution is a challenge for low-income communities because of the decline in government and policy that focus on changing the paradigm of citizens in those communities. There was some momentum during the Clinton Administration in the early 1990s during a drive to get public schools Internet connected, and Bill Gates has donated computers and software to public libraries. However, there has not been a widespread, all-encompassing national agenda to connect all communities in this country. In "Information Technology in Historical Perspective," Leo Marx argues that "computer literacy is a prerequisite for most desirable jobs, and access to the new technology is every child's democratic right" (133), but all children are not realizing that right. The unemployment rate is higher in low-income communities and there are limitations for education and development of job skills. Marx argues that historically -- from the railroad, to telegraphs and telephones, to radio and beyond -- new technologies improved the communication experience and fostered progression in society. In the information age, limited access to technology and information hinders economic, political, and social advancements for many in low-income areas. He cautions the changes that new information technologies bring to us are profound from wireless to digital transmittal of data, but it is not the panacea to fix racial, educational, and economic injustices in our society.

The strength of the book is the dichotomy that occurs in the second part, where the essays build from arguments set by authors in the first half of the book. Examining access to electronic information is the focus of William Mitchell's "Equitable Access to the Online World." Mitchell argues affluent communities have been able to take advantage of new technologies more readily than poorer communities and the same is occurring with computers and digital technology. The cost of accessing technology and services include buying computers, Internet connections, software, and other infrastructures, which many people in low-income communities do not have the resources to purchase. The hope is that this problem will change over time with the commercialization of technology and its by-products lowering costs and allowing more affordability and accessibility to all communities.

An interesting argument regarding equity as it relates to race, class, and economic status is raised in Alice Amsden and Jon Collins Clark's "Software Entrepreneurship among the Urban Poor: Could Bill Gates Have Succeeded If He were Black? . . . Or Impoverished?" Despite the discussion of software innovation being an open field with an opportunity for many people with diverse backgrounds to obtain success, the authors find that is not completely the case. According to Amsden and Clark, the urban poor lack the education and social capital to realize the successes of a Bill Gates. The education, training, human, and social skills are dissimilar in many instances thwarting exposure and opportunities for people in low-income communities. There are some success stories, but not of the magnitude that has made a significant change in those communities. The authors define entrepreneurship, the software industry, and software entrepreneurship, and derive common characteristics for success in these areas; usually those who succeed are older, white males with significant amounts of experience and extremely well educated. Amsden and Clark found the human and social capital needed for success in computer software development is limited for many urban poor. The education, advanced degrees, experience, contacts, and resources needed to support and advance ideas are not equitable for everyone. Better education, development of social capital, and access to resources continue to be key ingredients for individuals in low-income communities to change their paradigm for more opportunities. The authors argue "Bill Gates may be the uncharacteristic software entrepreneur for having dropped out of college . . . (but) he is typical insofar as he enjoyed membership in a privileged American economic and social elite. The odds that he would have succeed had his social world been that of the urban ghetto may by predicted to be infinitesimally small" (230). Better education, development of social capital, and access to resources continue to be key ingredients for poor and low-income communities in changing their paradigm for more opportunities.

An optimistic approach to change from within is presented by Mitchel Resnick, Natalie Rusk, and Stina Cooke in their chapter "The Computer Clubhouse: Technological Fluency in the Inner City." The authors discuss a community program in which The Computer Clubhouse in Boston was created through the collaboration of the Computer Museum and MIT's Media Lab as an after school center for youths to work on computer projects. The clubhouse's goal was to help participants learn how to express themselves through new technology. The young people using the clubhouse turned into a community by coalescing and building projects together. The clubhouse is designed to allow the participants to create environments online that they are interested in, and projects flourished under this arrangement. According to the authors, the traditional focus of education, which is teaching by methods rather than a motivation for learning, would have inhibited the clubhouse experience. The youths there flourished in their technological skills by building projects they conceived and executed. Designing online galleries, developing artistic talents, and creating a safe environment for everyone to participate were key elements to the success at the clubhouse. Mirroring such a project across the country in low-income communities will facilitate a change in learning and exposure.

In their conclusion, "Information Technology and Urban Poverty: The Role of Public Policy," Bish Sanyal and Donald Schon argue there are no quick fixes to bring technology to low-income communities. Sanyal and Schon argue that members of society can choose how to create an environment where information technology is available and beneficial to everyone. Sanyal and Schon's policy recommendations encourage alliances among government, business, and private enterprise to facilitate change in the digital environment. Their recommendations include: information technology is no substitute for social policy; the poor must not be excluded from shared inquiry; government must ensure universal access (such as infrastructure, hardware, software); government must create better and equal public education for children and youth in low-income areas; and targeting prospective entrepreneurs particularly in low-income communities. The digital revolution must be inclusive of the urban poor and low-income communities so that they do not continue to be excluded from the social, economic, and culture benefits of the information age that are driven by technology.

The arguments made in the book range from some authors offering pessimistic prospects to many authors citing the potential for improving exposure to technology in low-income communities. The caveat is that any change must be a concerted effort and commitment by all parties within and outside of those communities. The information age should not leave behind those currently experiencing less exposure and opportunity to education and development of new skills. This compilation of essays sets the agenda for continued research of programs that create equitable environments that allow everyone to experience the growth realized by optimizing their opportunities to utilize technology and access information pertinent to survival in this society.

Gracie Lawson-Borders:
Gracie Lawson-Borders is an assistant professor in the Division of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs at Southern Methodist University. Her research interests include media convergence, media management, and ethics.  <gracie@post.cis.smu.edu>

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