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-by Douglas Groothuis

It Takes More Than a Virtual Village

A now famous cartoon in the New Yorker shows one dog saying to another, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." In his best-selling cheer for everything digital, The Road Ahead, Bill Gates exults that "anyone can send anyone else a message on the Internet," and notes that correspondents "who might be uncomfortable talking to each other in person have forged bonds across a network." (Gates laments that the incorporation of video technology with e-mail and other forms of communication on the Net, while much to be desired in some respects, will "do away with the social, racial, gender, and species blindness that text-only exchanges permit.")

Gates's comments are curious. First, it is not true that "anyone can send anyone else a message on the Internet." This is true for Gates and his friends, to be sure; but most people are still strangers to cyberspace, either because they don't have the stamina to master a new and often intimidating technology or because they simply do not have the financial resources to connect. As of now, users of the Internet are overwhelmingly young, white, middle to upper-middle class, and male--although the extent of women's involvement seems to be increasing fairly rapidly. Connections of various kinds are being made through cyberspace, but these electronic rendezvous do not seem to be crossing gender, class, and racial barriers in any significant way. Many worry that the juggernaut of advancing cyberspace technologies will leave economically disadvantaged people out of the information loop.

Even if computers become more affordable for more people, how will poorer folks learn how to use them, especially if schools in lower-income neighborhoods have less access to computer education? As computer expert and cyberspace critic Clifford Stoll has pointed out, the cyberspace community is not as friendly as it often claims to be. Because of the "exclusionary nature of technocratic culture," it is up to the user to figure out which system is best, ...

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