Despite government programs to try to equalize things, American social observers worry that there may be what they call a "digital divide." This refers to a supposed gap that separates those who have Internet access from those who do not.
America is very serious about this connection. There is a national program begun in 1996, known as E-rate, to use fees from big communication concerns to subsidize access to the Internet to ensure that Internet access will be as widely distributed as possible. It now spends some $2.25 billion a year spreading the Internet. It has been so successful that Eagle, Alaska, an isolated community of 500 near the border with the Yukon Territory, can offer its residents 30 minutes of free time every month, and the average public school in New York City had about a dozen classrooms wired for the Internet at the beginning of this school year.
Social critics worry about whether this digital divide falls in the gap between races and whether it will accentuate the difference between the rich and the poor since the rich will be connected to the Internet while the poor will not. They study the number of those who can access the Internet and even the quality and speed of their connection to determine if the gaps are narrowing or spreading.
What lies behind all this? Much less than would appear based on the noise and attention that surround the issue.
To show that some of those connected to the Internet are not really getting the full benefits, David Gollaher, chief executive of the California Healthcare Institute, a nonprofit group in La Jolla, Calif., said that his own children were not really interested until he got a high-speed connection at home. Now he is happy since they use the Internet quite a bit. What do they do? "They download a lot of music, and they listen to radio stations online," he said.
Far be it from us to decide what is best for Mr. Gollaher or his children, but we know that for ourselves this is something that we can easily pass up.
The Internet is riding a wave that can only be described as hysteria. People are overwhelmed and carried away by its "enormous potential," but so far it has only managed to grab a small share of business that already existed before the Internet started. Books have been sold for 400 years, and now they are sold on the Internet. That is hardly a revolution.
By far the most popular application on the Internet is electronic mail (e-mail, which was not prohibited by the rabbonim). Its ease, speed and ability to transmit large masses of digital information have made it an essential part of modern life for many people, and one can have e-mail without exposure to the whole Internet.
However, much of the rest of the Internet is typified by the idea of listening to radio online. It is so far just another way to access material that is available elsewhere -- and that we can easily do better without.
To be sure, the Internet is a phenomenon that touches many millions and it cannot be summed up comprehensively in a few words. There are many exceptions and special cases.
Still, there is a bubble of optimism that surrounds the Internet these days in the media and in the stock market that blows things out of all proportion to the underlying reality.
The truth is that most people will not be missing out on anything worthwhile on the Internet. The vast majority of what is there is just same material of modern culture whose undesirable effects on themselves and their families they are already struggling to minimize.