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Riding the Mercedes Gap into the Info Age

Must we carry the liabilities of partisanship into the "Information Age"? When a new administration arrives full of certainty and conviction, as they all do, there exists the danger that an agenda embraced by the outgoing crowd will be cast aside merely because it belonged to them.

When this happens, as it is happening right now at the Federal Communications Commission, Americans may lose more than old political labels — they also may lose the national assets built by the old program.

In a recent article in the New York Times, FCC chairman Michael Powell expressed his reservations regarding the phrase "digital divide" as a description of the existing gaps in access to information services and technologies. After expressing a commitment to "eliminate barriers," he further responded to reporters' questions concerning the divide, "I think there is a Mercedes divide," he said. "I'd like to have one; I can't afford one. I'm not meaning to be completely flip about this. I think it's an important social issue. But it shouldn't be used to justify the notion of essentially the socialization of the deployment of the infrastructure."

Powell is right; no one deserves to have a Mercedes just because they are American; and, that might even be Socialism, though a kind never before experienced on this earth. Nevertheless, by construing the digital divide agenda as an attempt to distribute undeserving handouts, Powell misses its value as a strategy aimed at broadening access to the essential process of an information age democracy.

Powell is right when he says the FCC should eliminate barriers to democratic participation, and we should commend him for forthrightness that is accountable. Indeed, the existence of information gaps should come as no surprise to anyone in public policy.

As a basic assumption, most policy makers understand that access to information and communications technologies is a primary tool enabling all citizens to participate in those economic, political and social activities fundamental to an information age democracy and a good society. In this historic era, as the information age begins to gel, an accessible "National Information Infrastructure" is the essential ingredient for overcoming social fragmentation and enabling political participation. In the 21st century, communication creates society; and, in essence, the NII creates the weave that holds us all together. Hence, when Americans observe or imagine that some are falling behind, it gives pause because it endangers the promise of democracy — thus our legitimate anxiety over gaps, especially information gaps.

Yet Powell's reference to Mercedes indicates that he might suspect these "gaps" to be fabrications of some Democratic Party publicist. If so, he should dig a little deeper. A decade of research has documented the existence and persistence of three critical gaps in access. Around 18 million Americans lack telephones in their homes; they consist of a real mix — minorities, women with children, American Indians, renters and the unemployed. A similar gap appears to exist for Internet access among American Indians, rural households, women in certain income groups and the elderly. Around 4,500 schools and 500 public libraries still lack Internet access. Granted, the FCC can't do much about some gaps; but Powell's leadership toward solving these will contribute positively to the others.

By acknowledging that information access gaps erect a barrier to the way to an information age democracy, Powell will bring a public ideal to the FCC in the finest tradition of American governance and he will move toward gaining a better understanding of the agency's role in promoting the public interest. Powell is a smart and thoughtful public servant. If he engages the problem of access and encourages public discourse within the policy community, then we will live democracy as the founder's intended: through lively, dynamic and enlightening debate.

In the information age, we must recognize those information gaps that threaten access, understand them and decide through public discourse how best to fill them in. If we do so, we will breathe life into the republic by facilitating participation in the economic, political and social life of a democratic society that embraces all.

Jorge Reina Schement is co-director of the Institute for Information Policy at Penn State University.