America’s Real Digital Divide: The Communities of Color Problem

Naomi Schaefer Riley’s NYT’s piece “America’s Real Digital Divide” illustrates the disproportionate usage of screens by people of color. The problem of overreliance upon screens is further exacerbated by the fact that in many of our communities the only STEM “education” offered is what can be done on a screen (things we know to be little more than Skinner Boxes–highly ineffective at actual helping students learn the underlying logic of STEM or how to think critically).

Technology has been the promised panacea that would cure many of the social ills faced by our communities–especially as it relates to education gaps. It is for that reason that in many of our schools one sees an early adoption of technology and an overreliance upon it. So, as we sound the alarm about the harms done to developing brains by screens, who is going to get the word out in these communities? Will there be an effort made to spread the word specifically to these communities that use these technologies disproportionately? What will be offered as a substitute for these harmful STEM tools/programs?


Thanks for raising this!

I appreciate the “organic food” analogy for ethical software (that consumers will start to demand and pay a premium for healthier choices), but will that just create the digital equivalent of food deserts? How can we avoid that similar fate?

There is a real opportunity here to create humane tech products that are not only accessible to vulnerable segments of the population, but also promote the self-determination, agency and human connection that is core to breaking out of cycles of intergenerational poverty.

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I think that the overreliance upon tech does not require an innovation of new tech. Instead, I think we need to have an honest discussion about the function and limitations of tech. We aught to be intentional about including vulnerable communities in these conversations. Otherwise, the conversations will be had. Those who can read the NYT–or care to–will update and modify their behaviors, while the most vulnerable will continue to engage in detrimental behaviors that are only exacerbated by their poverty/disenfranchisement.

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Thanks for posting. I think this poses a real societal problem that will be brewing especially in tandem with the growing minority demographics shifts and growing wealth inequality. Initial widespread awareness efforts such as those promoted by CHT should be cognizant to not exclude ‘underprivileged’ groups. Having worked with inner city public school students in Baltimore, ability to focus is already at a premium. The food desert (or most recently in Baltimore, ‘healthy food priority areas’) analogy is apt- we need better metrics for both ‘healthy’ digital tools as well as ‘junk food’ digital tools.


There is also a crucial opportunity to not only to create humane tech products that promote self-determination, agency, human connection and access to vulnerable segments of the population, but to also include such vulnerable segments into the spaces and sectors that have already baked in biases into their products and work cultures that both intentionally and unintentionally exclude such groups. Part of the “tech” problem in this context, is also how “humane” the individuals and systems created around these ideologies are to populations that we are further making vulnerable.

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Hasn’t new tech always solved problems created from previous tech?

We need consumer awareness AND we need new solutions. Some of those new solutions are aligning themselves with the Zebras Movement, a more ethical and inclusive approach to startup creation.

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Great link @andrewmurraydunn! Thx for sharing :slight_smile:

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In a strange twist, I think the saving grace will be that the human emphasis on STEM skills themselves might become less relevant in an ever-more technology-driven future. Who needs a slide rule when you have calculators? Who needs to memorize human anatomy when you have assistive devices? Who needs to program software when in the future it might more easily program itself to human desires?

I am not advocating for continued ignorance of STEM subjects in communities, like all communities, will be wholly upended by STEM-driven advances. Rather, when the machines dominate the STEM sphere that may well cause humanity to need to double-down on those characteristics, skills, and traits that are far more human in focus: empathy, understanding, humility, vulnerability, subtleties in communication, etc.

And to the degree that innovation and global advancement benefits being more inclusive rather than less, that places a serious demand on these more human traits from communities of color.

That said, in the meantime it does mean the transition to that future can be a challenging and painful one for communities that are much more in service of these screens and devices than they are in service of those communities.

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I’m fascinated by the thinking that the “tech” is the only problem. Or am I misunderstanding the comments. I see that there are many underlying issues being either created or exacerbated by tech. I am the father of a teen who tried to commit suicide. In the process of working through her therapy it became clear that her addiction to social media created an unhealthy and unrealistic self-image. Once that self-image was exposed to her online peers… they pounced on it to shame and ridicule her. Her youth and social inexperience, coupled with her shame, prevented her from seeking help from the adults in her life. I see us policing and/or removing the engagement, but how do we police the messaging? and if that is a free-speech issue… how do we provide help for those kids that don’t have the capacity to handle the constant online pressure?

I’m sorry if this was a little off-topic… however, I see communities of color being undeserved by the mental health industry… and as such… they are much more vulnerable

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I am very sorry to hear about your daughter. I hope that she is better.

It used to be that TV was what we measured ourselves against, but on some level we knew that it was make-believe. Those images gradually became closer and realer to us first through the advent of reality TV, and then through social media. Now we cannot just dismiss the images as make-believe, because they are images of people that we know, where we live. This has increased the potency and the credibility of the images that we see. (These images/videos are no less edited than traditional TV/movies. But, the frequency of these impossible images makes it hard for someone to accept that this “life” is not actually taking place somewhere.)

I think that you ask a really great question.

I don’t think that the solution requires more innovation–at that rate we will only create incremental solutions, rather than disengaging and reorienting ourselves to how to use these tools more effectively (assuming that we need to use them at all). Tech cannot be a panacea. We are far more complex than flat functional technology would treat us, so why do we need to continue to force this very limited functional frame upon human lives?

I feel that we have embraced/engaged technology, and its development, at a rate that has not allowed people to be thoughtful about its integration into their lives. Instead, we have surrendered to its inexorable march in the name of progress/futurism/relevance.

So to your question, one must necessarily disengage if for no other reason than to gain perspective and orientation in this brave new world.


I am not a luddite.


I am not a fan of STEM (as it is generally taught). STEM is not a discipline. Instead, STEM represents areas of study that share a specific type of logic and intellectual discipline (critically thinking). Understanding science is essential in order to engineer technology–and math is the logical language that allows for precise solutions. (roughly)

There is no point in life where we will not need to have an understanding of these areas of study. Even a program that programs itself will have to be programmed to accept specific parameters/inputs/outputs. In order to decipher what the essential data is that will become the parameters/inputs/outputs one must use logic to distill the crucial data from all of the data noise. In order to do that, one needs to be disciplined in using critical thinking/logic.

I recently got to ask Hadi Partovi about the dangers of pushing things like as a panacea for the digital divide. His response was interesting in that he did not consider a student using screens as harmful as long as they were using it for coding. For time and consideration of the venue, I was not able to pursue the question further. But, I do think that it is telling that purveyors of these technologies have not, themselves, taken a more critical look at what they are exposing our children to.
To be fair, Mr. Partovi did say that he expected teachers using to teach CS without relying exclusively on the screen. Unfortunately, that is not what takes place in classrooms. We cannot expect teachers to teach CS if they themselves have not learned it. Since there is a push for teachers to teach these classes, they have come to rely upon tools like --but only in as much as students can plug-and-play (students can login and self-study). Sadly, this means that rather than educating our children in CS we are inoculating them to every wanting to study.

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The Zebras Movement sounds like a great initiative because technology on its own will definitely not do it, and consumer awareness is definitely important.

Also, I think that even more importantly is emphasizing the need for Media Ecology education:

Media ecology looks into the matter of how media of communication affect human perception, understanding, feeling, and value; and how our interaction with media facilitates or impedes our chances of survival.

Because if people don’t have the skills and knowledge to analyze the biases of technology to determine whether the benefits of using it are greater than its disadvantages, having great alternatives won’t help as much, as people will continue to fall for proven attention-grabbing technologies that disregard the user’s well-being.

Here’s another quote by Neil Postman that I think is quite relevant:

Technology giveth and technology taketh away. This means that for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. The disadvantage may exceed in importance the advantage, or the advantage may well be worth the cost. Now, this may seem to be a rather obvious idea, but you would be surprised at how many people believe that new technologies are unmixed blessings. You need only think of the enthusiasms with which most people approach their understanding of computers. Ask anyone who knows something about computers to talk about them, and you will find that they will, unabashedly and relentlessly, extol the wonders of computers. You will also find that in most cases they will completely neglect to mention any of the liabilities of computers. This is a dangerous imbalance, since the greater the wonders of a technology, the greater will be its negative consequences.

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Thank you for referencing Technopoly! I think that everyone should read Postman!!!

can you explain a bit more about what you mean by “intergenerational poverty”
am fascinated by that term and want to be sure i understand what you mean

Sure! See:

Amen thanks for posting!!

Sorry for the long delay. I was not sure that this post was directed at me—but you seem to have landed upon a resource.
It is important to first define poverty. In the West, poverty can best be described as relative privations. Which is to say that proximity to affluent people and their standard of living determines how poverty is assessed and understood. So, the disparity of life outcomes between wealthy individuals and poorer individuals becomes the standard by which poverty is measured.
This approach is not useful in adequately describing the state of poverty. In the West, a poor individual’s standard of living, relative to a previous generations’ or relative to global poverty, may be considerably higher. Yet, we are not likely to say that the change in their standard of living over a generation means that the poor have actually gained wealth as long as a disparity remains between them and their proximate, wealthy contemporaries.
So, we must thoughtfully come up with a standard of living that is the absolute limit for humans in our society. People living beyond which would be described as living in poverty ( It would be wise to avoid tying a standard of living to any fixed monetary amount. Poverty is a qualitative problem; we err when we want to use quantitative methods to asses it,as numbers can create arbitrary boundaries—that help those who do not need it and might not help those who would.)
I am not sure that I fully accept the frame of IGP. 100 years ago, most of the world was very poor. We have managed to move the standard of living/quality of life needle in a significantly more positive direction. ( Does that mean that resources are distributed equitably? Of course not. But, as living standards have improved considerably, we have had to redefine poverty.) Does that improvement in the quality of life count as wealth generation? If it does, then why are we comfortable keeping people in the same poverty category as the previous generation?

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