Brave new world or empty gesture? 

Cyber centers meant to bridge digital divide

The cyber center at the John C. Birdine Neighborhood Facility in southwest Atlanta sparkles. Work stations are grouped into cells. The chairs are ergonomic; the pristine Dell terminals are plugged into the Internet with high-speed T1 connections.

These centers, 15 in all by the end of this year, are designed to bring computer and Internet access to some of Atlanta's poorest residents. They will likely be remembered as one of Mayor Bill Campbell's most ambitious initiatives.

It's a gambit on a scale not seen anywhere else in America, according to city officials and Wired magazine. And taxpayers aren't even footing the bill -- the centers rely on corporate donations and fees imposed on cable companies.

The idea is simple. Campbell believes poor Atlantans are being left behind in the tech revolution. The centers are intended to bridge that gap: Access to computer education, the thinking goes, means inclusion and access to greater economic opportunity.

But outside the doors of the cyber centers, chronic problems in the "empowerment zones" remain -- high crime rates, suffering schools, inadequate housing. The questions arise: Can the cyber centers meet their ambitious goals? Or are those goals even valid? Is the city putting the cart before the horse?

Mark Slouka, a professor at Columbia University and author of War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality, fears it's the latter.

There's a thousand other things that could have a greater impact on a poor community, he says -- paying teachers more, reducing class sizes or putting more money into housing.

What's more, there have been no studies that even indicate that computer users read better, write better or use information better, says Neal Postman, the chair of the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University.

The computer literate students entering NYU aren't smarter than the freshmen of 20 years ago, Postman says. "In fact, I'd say they're not as smart."

But America, and in this case, Atlanta, has bought into the idea that there is a need for computers, that they are a democratic engine. "It's been one of the most successful sales jobs in the history of technology," Slouka says.

Slouka and Postman worry that computer skills alone aren't enough. Cyber center graduates might be able to communicate more easily, thanks to what they learned in class, but will it be more meaningful?

"To me, we're just trading one screen for another," Slouka says, referring to television. "There's a huge difference between information and education, and we've been blurring the lines between the two for a long time now."

Jabari Simama, the city's cyber center point man, disagrees. If the city was providing only access, then Slouka and Postman's concerns would be legitimate, he says. But the cyber centers go beyond just training. Instructors and mentors in the cyber centers are helping students build self-esteem and are taking an active interest in their students' lives, Simama contends.

So far, more than 5,000 people have been served by the cyber centers, Simama says. Seventy to 80 percent stay for at least two six-week classes.

The cyber centers have only a five-year budget. The goal, Simama explains, is for the project to become "so effective it goes out of business." By then, he hopes, the digital divide will be bridged. At that point, the city can determine what aspects of the program are still needed.

That could mean the city establishes a computer certification program paid for by users or that it maintains a community portal so residents can access city services online.

The cyber centers aren't workforce development centers, Simama says. There are plenty of places that do that, but few that give free computer access and training. But, he says, "we believe the training is good enough that people will be able to apply for jobs that they couldn't have applied for before."

Still, there's no system in place to track what happens to graduates of the program. There are plans, however, to track whether students buy their own computers once they take courses, he says. City officials are discussing a low-cost computer buying program.

Slouka says New York City embarked on a similar program to give computers to low-income families in Harlem, but a study showed that a vast majority of the families gave up on the computers once they had to pay for Internet services and maintenance.

But Postman says cyber centers have some value just in the goal of equitable access.

What's more, the centers are a resounding success with at least one constituency -- senior citizens, who make up a third of the cyber center participants, according to Campbell.

Freddie Reese of East Lake began taking classes at the Bessie Branham cyber center in Kirkwood during the spring. She's learned how to design spreadsheets, send e-mail to family members and navigate the Internet. When she came to the center, Reese couldn't even turn on the computer.

"After I found out about the Internet, you couldn't hardly keep me out of here."

Access to the technology has the potential to eliminate isolation and loneliness among senior citizens, Simama says. And just coming to class accomplishes part of that goal.

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