Technology: the great equalizer
by Alan Zisman (c)
in Vancouver Computes,
a) Computer and Internet technology is inherently
everyone increased access to information, and an increased ability to
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
have-not regions of the world.
Some evidence: according to a 1999 US Department of
Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide, over 60% of
with college degrees use the Internet, compared to a mere 7% of
adults with an elementary school education. Households with incomes
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
Zif-Davis suggested that at that time, 50% of US households had PCs.
your search to households with an income over US$40,000, and that
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
kids and incomes of US$40,000 or more).
Similarly, in the Department of Commerce study, those
were nine times as likely to own computers as low-income families.
We hear a lot about instant millionaires (or
rich from stock offerings of technology and Net companies. But at the
time, did you ever wonder who?s actually making the technological
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
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,
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
in Northern California?s Silicon Valley?where families of immigrants
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,
electronics parts that ultimately ended up in products from respected
like Hewlett Packard, Sun, and Cisco. While Cisco, for example, claims
to expect all its sub-contractors to use certified facilities, the
spoke to at least one source who had a contract from the company to
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
one home contractor who claimed to be earning as much as US$80 per
it also showed off children working with their parents at home, using
dangerous high-acid soldering flux and suffering from repetitive stress
syndrome. Some workers reported working as many as 80 hours a week,
high tech components in their homes.
These practices evolved over the last 20 years, with
companies keeping an arm?s length relationship from the home
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
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
companies named in the earlier series of articles are reviewing their
practices. The paper now suggests that ?home work has simply dried up
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
technologies that have changed society, there are a complex mix of
Locally, you can support the efforts of groups like Computers for
and Vancouver Community Net which, in various ways, are working locally
to reduce the digital divide that separates our own computer and
haves and have nots.