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CITY TIMES COVER STORY : Losing the Cyberspace Race : On the Fast-Paced High-Technology Track, Inner City Schools and Libraries Are Taking Small Steps to Catch Up

February 26, 1995|PETER Y. HONG

The world saw the power of information technology when the Berlin Wall tumbled live on CNN, and Tiananmen Square protesters used fax machines to reach their supporters worldwide.

But many of Los Angeles' poorest residents have missed even the past century's communications revolution. One out of five renters in Watts, for instance, does not even have a telephone.

Such persistent deprivation amid rapid advances raises a new challenge for policy-makers, educators and high-tech industries. As workplaces, schools and the government depend more on computer networks and other high-tech systems, many wonder: Will the growing power of information technology underscore the powerlessness of the poor?

Those who have a computer that can tap into networks such as the Internet already have an edge over those without them.

Contractors use the networks to bid for city jobs. Students look for books in libraries, including the Library of Congress, from home computers. Network users send messages to friends on other continents for the price of a local phone call.

Democracy, too, is increasingly tied to technology as computer-savvy activists review congressional bills on line. And in Santa Monica, Glendale and Diamond Bar, residents can send messages directly to city officials from their computers.

"This is going to be the central nervous system of the 21st Century. Communities that are bypassed will end up as shriveled as those that were bypassed by the interstates in the 1950s," said Jeffrey A. Chester, head of the Center for Media Education, a Washington organization that works with civil rights groups on technology issues.

In inner-city Los Angeles, schools, libraries and community groups are taking small steps to avoid being left behind. For instance, students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles are among the lucky few who have free access to the Internet.

On a recent morning at Garfield, which is one of three city schools that give students Internet log-ons, students crowded around three computers to scan the offerings of the worldwide computer network. One group studied a color map of the topography of the Earth's oceans, another linked up with the computer at the White House and others checked the concert schedule of the rock group Pearl Jam.

"If we didn't have this, we'd probably only know about Internet from commercials. We'd see it on TV but wouldn't really know what it's all about," said Santiago Cardona, a 17-year-old senior, who has used the system to research an English paper.

Without more such efforts, however, the inequality of the early days of the industrial revolution may well be repeated as the world moves solidly into the information age.

Wealth and education play large roles in determining who owns a computer. A 1994 study by the Times Mirror Center for People and the Press found that a college graduate with an annual income over $50,000 is 10 times more likely to have a computer with a modem than a person without a college education who makes less than $30,000 a year.

Thus, unless the gap in computer ownership closes, poor children are likely to fall behind their wealthier peers in developing computer skills.

Cyberspace, as the realm of computer networks is often called, is racially divided as well, according to the poll. Twelve percent of whites have a computer with a modem (a device that links computers via phone lines), compared with 5% of blacks and 8% of Latinos. Asian Americans were not included in the study.

Tight budgets in Los Angeles have limited the computerization of public libraries and schools to a few demonstration projects.

The Los Angeles Public Library, however, has installed public computer terminals for free Internet access in many of its branches. By the end of March, 41 of the system's 66 branches, including several in central and south Los Angeles, will have computers that can tap into on-line networks.

The library's computer system can give the poor better access to resources out of their areas. Library users who live far from Downtown Los Angeles will be able to find books in the Central Library through a computer at their neighborhood branch.

The Exposition Park library branch signed up 80 library users for Internet classes, which are being held this week. Only one terminal is available for Internet use, however, and users are limited to one-hour sessions.

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Officials hope that computer networks can narrow the quality gap between schools in rich and poor areas as well. Through networks, teachers in different schools can exchange lesson plans, research and teaching tips. Students could use computers to get help from teachers at other schools or plug into another school's library.

"Internet access could be the great equalizer. It might give a student in South-Central (Los Angeles) the same access to resources that a student in Beverly Hills has," said Andy Rogers of the Los Angeles Unified School District's information technology division.

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