@internet -- United We Stand

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After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream: that someday, when his little children were grown, they would be judged, "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." Unfortunately, that vision -- of a society that possesses in fact the tolerance and equality of justice to which it has for so long aspired in theory -- in may ways seems no closer to realization today than it was in 1963.

True, the shameful Jim Crow laws are now gone. But the reality of everyday life is that, outside of Silicon Valley and the world of professional sports, the struggle for equality of opportunity goes on -- and we, the people, are still a long way from achieving the goal itself.

Because racism remains such a persistant feature of this country, America has ample reason to be ashamed of the tortuously slow progress we have made in the almost forty years since King laid out his vision of a color-blind society. It is to our discredit as a nation that we have made so little progress over so many intervening years.


In the past three years or so, much has been made of the so-called "digital divide" between those who have access to the kingdoms of the Internet -- and the technology that makes that access possible -- and those who do not. Sadly, the bulk of the debate over the problem has centered on issues of race.

I think those who espouse that point of view are misinformed at best, short-sighted at a minimum and guilty of craven pandering to their own constituencies' prejudices at worst. I think that way, because it seems so pellucidly clear to me that the problem of unequal access to computers and the Internet inheres to inequities of economic status, rather than to race prejudice -- and therefor it is equally apparent to me that interjecting racial issues into the debate only muddies the waters and, consequently, impedes the search for solutions to the core problem.

Robert W. Taylor, the Father of the Internet, has a dream, too: that access to the offspring of his intellect will, one day, be accorded the status of a basic human right. He believes -- and I agree -- that the Internet is a resource of fundamental and critical importance to the future development of humanity as a species.

As a tool of communication, as a repository of information, as a publishing medium and, increasingly, as an entirely new forum of commerce, the Net is without parallel in history. Even the invention of movable type -- for that, and not the printing press, per se, was Gutenberg's seminal contribution to human culture -- cannot compare with the Internet's importance to us, now, and to our posterity.

Which brings me to the story of my friend, the legendary "Doctor" Murdock.

By His Bootstraps

Murdock -- that's his nom-de-Net -- was one of the founders of the BBS-era Shawn-Da-Lay Boy Productions and a prolific author of some of its most bizzare and entertaining text files. In the early 1990's, he discovered the Internet -- back when the dominant access paradigm was via dial-in terminal emulation -- and he became something of a "script kiddie" in his relentless search for pornography, pirated software and texts on hacking, phracking and anarchism in general.

Today, he's an accomplished Unix sysadmin who specializes in mixed Unix/Windows network environments. He's good at his job and he makes more money than God.

It's a far different -- and far more positive -- fate than the ones his old high-school running mates enjoy. Most of them are either dead or doing hard time for knocking over gas stations and engaging in like forms of antisocial behavior.

Murdock, you see, comes from what used to be called "the wrong side of the tracks." And in Richmond, California, that's really saying something.

But Murdock had three things going for him that set him apart from his high-school peers: he's smart, he has an imagination -- and, when he was 15, a relative gave him an old Commodore 64 and a box of C-64 games.

And that changed everything for him. As Murdock himself put it, "Computers saved my life, Thom. No joke."

Learning how to use that Commie -- a computer that was pretty thoroughly obsolete, even in those days -- forced him to learn how to solve problems via research and experiment. In short, it taught him to think -- a lesson that the miserable excuse that California uses for a public school system had been entirely incapable of transmitting. And using its crappy 300-baud modem allowed him to develop a whole new circle of friends -- folks who had a lot more on the ball than did the previous bunch -- by whom his perspective was broadened still further as time went along.

The thing is, Murdock's story is far from unique. Take virtually any child, give him a computer of his own (or of her own, because the principle works as well for girls as it does for boys) and access to an online community of peers and that kid will blossom with no further need for adult intervention.

That's because the human mind is like a muscle. The more it's used, the more powerful it becomes. Computers are the equivalent of Nautilus machines for the intellect -- and boy, are they ever addictive.

Now, mind you, Murdock is a white boy -- but there is no hoarier cliche than, "On the Internet, no one knows that you're a dog." I've seen essentially the same tale repeat itself with kids of other races and other ethnic backgrounds, too many times to believe that his story is any kind of fluke.

And that's why I maintain that the so-called "digital divide" has NOTHING to do with race. Given a computer and access to the Net, children become auto-didacts by default. And the notion that kids of any given color are somehow inherently less capable of using those tools to lift themselves by their their own bootstraps than are those of other races is simply ludicrous.

They can all do it -- and, given the chance, they will all do it.

And that truth, in its turn, takes us to the idea of "enlightened self-interest".

Now How Much Would You Pay?

Let's do some math, shall we?

In California, where Murdock and I both live, as of two years ago, it cost $21,470 to house one inmate in a state prison cell for one year. Here in the Golden State, we have a policy called "three strikes and you're out," which dictates that anyone convicted of three felonies can be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. (If the third strike is for a non-violent felony, the judge has the option of a lesser sentence.)

In ten years, that's well over $200,000 in constant dollars just to warehouse one prisoner -- and every penny of it is a dead loss to society. That doesn't begin to account for the cost of running that inmate through the judicial system -- so add, at a minimum, the salaries of the judge and court officers, the shameful pittance paid to juries, the district attorney's costs and the price of a public defender, plus the investigation expenses and the paychecks of the cops and evidence technicians who testify in the case.

And that's just for the initial trial. Anyone convicted of his third strike is almost inevitably going to appeal -- which doubles or triples those costs, depending on how far that appeal is carried.

And cons don't pay taxes -- but you and I do.

About 120 million of us filed individual income tax returns with the Federal government last year. Supposing we each kicked in an extra three bucks, it'd add up to over 350 million dollars a year.

With that kind of scratch, we could soon afford to buy every poor kid in America his or her own, personal computer, (after all, you can get an Internet-worthy system for around $500 these days -- and they keep getting cheaper all the time,) and provide him or her with a paid-up Internet account. And, since you're the ones who'd be providing those Internet accounts, a certain percentage of that money would come right back to you.

If we replaced those kiddie computers every three years, we'd end up spending $2000 -- plus the cost of Net access -- on each child. Not much of an investment to save $200,000 plus, is it?

And, as I see it, it's a darned practical way to make Dr. Taylor's dream of universal Internet access a reality -- and, in the process, to bring Dr. King's dream several steps closer to realization, too. After all, we've all had the experience of getting to know someone via the Net and then being surprised when we meet them in person to find out that he or she is..well..you name it: short, tall, black, white, gay, straight, male, female or what-have-you.

Because, on the Internet, you have to judge people "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character".


(Copyright© 2001 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)