Digital Divide

Philip Emeagwali was interviewed by e-mail in May 1997 by Toriano Boynton ( for his forthcoming book about the impact of technology on African-Americans. Boynton wrote:

I am a freelance journalist working on a book about the impact of technology on African-Americans from a sociocultural perspective. In the research process, I came across your name and your impressive biography.

I was wondering if I could speak to you over the phone regarding this issue and perhaps you could give me some helpful insight. I would like for you to comment specifically on the following concepts:


Toriano Boynton: How would you evaluate the current state of computer technology as it relates to African-American culture. Are we embracing the technology or hiding from it?

Emeagwali: An African-American is three or four times less likely to be using a computer to retrieve information from the World Wide Web than a white American. In this Information Age where most information would only be available through the Internet, having a computer at home and work is as essential as having a telephone.

Schools with a large number of African-Americans tend to have outdated computers and software, broken laboratory equipments and slim budgets.

The significance of the lack of access is that it is technology that creates wealth which, in turn, means that the socio-economic gap between white and black America could widen in the 21st century.

Unfortunately, we spent more time discussing Ebonics or acquiring gold jewelry, Hilfiger t-shirts, Nike shoes, and Lexus cars instead of accessing vital information at websites and insisting that our kids turn off the TV, do their homework and and read one book a day which, in turn, will empower us as a people.

To answer your original question, yes, we are hiding from computer technology.


Toriano Boynton: What are some real implications of computer technology on the everyday lives of African-Americans?

Emeagwali: African-Americans are overrepresented in those unskilled jobs that will eventually be replaced with workers with computer skills. Many African-Americans are employed in clerical positions in the banking, accounting and insurance industries and these jobs will soon become obsolete. For these reasons, computer-based technologies will have a greater impact on the lives of African-Americans than on any other ethnic group.

Computers connected to the Internet would become a major communication tools for sending e-mail and voice messages. African-Americans with access to the Internet will spend less time watching television and reading newspapers and magazines because a wider variety of news can be obtained on the Internet.

African-Americans will spend less time on long-distance telephone calls because the Internet can be used to send e-mail, voice messages and conduct interactive chats.

African-American youths will spend less time sleeping as they become obssessed with chatting over the Internet with other teenagers.

Christmas shopping will be done over the Internet.


Toriano Boynton: What should African-Americans do in order to embrace the technology. Are there any solutions to get more of us involved?

Emeagwali: The Congressional Black Caucus should sponsor a bill to provide job training and financial assistance to displaced workers.

African-Americans who desire high-skilled and higher-paying jobs should make themselves more attractive to employers by taking several computer courses at universities and using computers on a daily basis at work.

African-American families should invest in their future by replacing TVs with PCs.


Toriano Boynton: Is it necessary for African-Americans to embrace computer technology. If so, why? If not, why?

Emeagwali: Computers are used for computing (word processing) and telecommunication (email to grandma or visiting Web sites).

Using the computer to access information, news and entertainment is analogous to using the television to access news and entertainment. The difference is that the computer allows us to access more useful information than the television. The primary reason is that a few dozens television stations broadcast information to your television. But with the computer, you can send and receive information to and from a billion websites and email addresses. Information on the Internet is decentralized while that from the television network is centralized.

My personal Web site is my personal webcasting station. I broadcast my wedding photos, my inventions and discoveries and my lectures. In the future, it might become a requirement that every individual own webcasting station.


Toriano Boynton: What does the future of the computer age hold for African-Americans?

Emeagwali: African-Americans have less access to computers and Internet than white Americans. A group that do not have equal access to educational opportunities will lag behind the more priveleged group. Similarly, minority access to the Internet will create a "digital apartheid" that will keep them on the lower end of socio-economic ladder.

The problem can only be solved by a change of governmental policies, entrepreneural efforts and investment capital. We have to create computer and Internet training centers in the less affluent communities. We have to have all schools, libraries, homes and offices wired to the Internet.

Since computers and the Internet are the physical infrastructure of the the Information Age, we expect it to be as ubiquitous as electricity. We now live in a global village and we have left the agricultural and industrial ages and are now entering the information age. We picked cottons during the agricultural age and rode in separate buses during the industrial age. We have to ensure that our children are not eating the crumbs from the dinner table of the information age. We must shift from only consuming technology to pioneering and producing it.


Toriano Boynton: Are computers compatible with African-American norms, values and cultural practices? <---communalism vs. individualism?

Emeagwali: The Internet is more decentralized and has a lower entry barrier than newspaper, radio and television. Two hundred dollars a year is what it takes to maintain a Web site and one thousand dollars can purchase a personal computer. Therefore, the Internet provides greater opportunities to African Americans. I am speaking from first hand experience. I realized the power of the Internet in the mid-1970s and focused my academic research in that field. Today, I become more known than scientists who laughed at my projects. I believe that adopting and embracing a new technology gives one an edge over competitors.


Philip Emeagwali's Website

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Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor

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Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor