The end of the racial digital divide?

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Over the past decade or so, there has been a lot of hand wringing about how minorities in the U.S. use computers and the Internet at lower rates than whites. That ostensibly handicaps them in realms from searching for a job to finding the best deal on a car. A 1999 report from the Commerce Department found that “Black and Hispanic households are approximately one-third as likely to have home Internet access as households of Asian/Pacific Islander descent, and roughly two-fifths as likely as White households.” Just last year, the Pew Research Center reported that “by a 59%-to-45% margin, whites are more likely to go online using a computer on a typical day than are African Americans.”

Ready for the tables to turn? A new report from Pew’s Internet and American Life Project shows that blacks and Hispanics are actually on the Internet more often than whites… when it comes to getting there by way of a mobile phone. First of all, a higher percentage of blacks and Hispanics own mobile phones. And then more of them use their phones to access the Internet. While 33% of white mobile phone users go online with their device, 46% of blacks do and 51% of Hispanics. (Pew notes that the Hispanics it surveyed were all “English-speaking.”)

Over the weekend, the Austin American-Statesman ran a well-reported article trying to capture the implications. At first blush, this is great news. Yet University of Texas professor S. Craig Watkins, who studies the way teenagers communicate and spend time online, raised a note of caution:

Watkins says he’s becoming increasingly concerned with what he calls the participation gap. If teens are using their phones to consume media such as music, videos or sports scores instead of creating their own artistic works or engaging in discussions, are they really experiencing all the Internet has to offer?

“If mobile is the primary access point,” Watkins asks, “is that a quality experience that’s similar or equal to Wi-Fi on a laptop? Rather than just a mobile entertainment device, are they using (cell phones) for citizenship and engagement?”

It’s a great question. I download a lot of spreadsheets on my computer. Would I be doing that on a Kin? Maybe not.

Although the more I think about it, the less concerned I am about a preference for phone-based Internet access, especially since that’s the way most interactions are headed. First came online banking; now Chase is trying to get me to go mobile. When my local historical preservation group emails to tell me which condo developer is trying to wreck my neighborhood now, does it really matter if I read that email on a computer or on a phone? What’s important, it seems, is that I have a bank account and that I’m involved in my community. Neither one of those hinges on how—or even if—I’m online.

Closing the digital divide is a fantastic goal. But let’s not think that just because people get online, they’re going to do what we may like them to.