Technology: the great equalizer

by Alan Zisman (c) 2000. First published in Vancouver Computes, January 2000

Pick one:

a) Computer and Internet technology is inherently democratic, giving everyone increased access to information, and an increased ability to affect how society is run.


b) Computer and Internet technology increases the gap between rich and poor, both within countries like Canada and the US, and between have and have-not regions of the world.

Some evidence: according to a 1999 US Department of Commerce report, Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide, over 60% of Americans with college degrees use the Internet, compared to a mere 7% of American adults with an elementary school education. Households with incomes over US$75,000 are 20 times as likely to have Internet access than homes in the lowest income levels.

Urban dwellers in our neighbors to the South are twice as likely to have Net access as their country cousins.

When you look at which American families own computers, again, income makes a difference. Statistics gathered last Spring by technology publisher Zif-Davis suggested that at that time, 50% of US households had PCs. Limit your search to households with an income over US$40,000, and that figure jumps dramatically, closing on 70%. Add kids to the mix, and it becomes nearly 80%, a figure it reaches if you look at just 30-35 year olds (with kids and incomes of US$40,000 or more).

Similarly, in the Department of Commerce study, those US$75,000 families were nine times as likely to own computers as low-income families.

We hear a lot about instant millionaires (or billionaires), getting rich from stock offerings of technology and Net companies. But at the same time, did you ever wonder who?s actually making the technological miracles that you and I buy at ever more attractive prices.

You may know that, like Nike runners, lots of high tech products are manufactured or assembled in low-wage plants in places like South-East Asia or Central and South America. (If you?ve never done so, open up your PC and look at the chips on the motherboard, or making up your RAM?each chip has a manufacturer?s name and model number stenciled on it, along with its country of origin. That North American brand name computer is filled with chips from the places you might expect?Taiwan, Korea, Thailand, and Singapore, but also from countries like Brazil and Mexico that lack the high-tech image of their Asian counterparts).

But a surprising amount has also come from high tech sweatshops right in Northern California?s Silicon Valley?where families of immigrants from those same Asian and Latin American countries are paid piecework wages to assemble circuit boards and the like at home?in seeming violation of US labour, tax, safety, and child labour laws.

In a series of articles in Silicon Valley?s San Jose Mercury News last summer, reporters followed Vietnamese immigrants in the Valley, assembling electronics parts that ultimately ended up in products from respected companies like Hewlett Packard, Sun, and Cisco. While Cisco, for example, claims to expect all its sub-contractors to use certified facilities, the reporters spoke to at least one source who had a contract from the company to assemble connectors and circuit boards at home.

The articles noted how many immigrants were unfamiliar with their rights under minimum wage and other laws. While the report was able to point to one home contractor who claimed to be earning as much as US$80 per hour, it also showed off children working with their parents at home, using potentially dangerous high-acid soldering flux and suffering from repetitive stress syndrome. Some workers reported working as many as 80 hours a week, assembling high tech components in their homes.

These practices evolved over the last 20 years, with well-known high-tech companies keeping an arm?s length relationship from the home sweatshops, by dealing with suppliers who then contracted with home laborers.

(You can read the original reports at: In response, State and Federal authorities have begun an investigation, and claim that unlike investigations in 1980 that did little to change such practices, this time they mean business. The articles and the government pressure may be having more of an effect this time around. Following up last October, the Mercury News reported that Cisco and some of the other companies named in the earlier series of articles are reviewing their contracting practices. The paper now suggests that ?home work has simply dried up in Silicon Valley?.)

The question at the top of this column was, of course, a trick question. The correct answer was c) All of the Above. Computers and the Internet are neither inherently tools of oppression or of liberation. But like other technologies that have changed society, there are a complex mix of effects. Locally, you can support the efforts of groups like Computers for Schools and Vancouver Community Net which, in various ways, are working locally to reduce the digital divide that separates our own computer and Internet haves and have nots.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan