A Member Comments
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[ The SIGGRAPH Public Policy Program ]
[ A Member Comments ]
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[ Third On-Line Survey on Public Policy Issues in Computer Graphics ]
I was asked recently by a SIGGRAPH member why we weren't working on the digital
divide issue. The digital divide is a phrase coined to highlight the situation where certain
groups of people are underrepresented as computer and Internet users. Many dimensions
have been proposed for the digital divide: economic, racial, education, gender, location and
usability are some of them.
The primary reason I have not spent time on this issue is that all the dimensions, except
usability, are primarily social in nature and there is little to be added to the discussion by
technical experts operating as technical experts. Another reason for not working on this
one is that it is well covered by the general press and SIGGRAPH members can certainly
access that information and respond as citizens.
On the usability issue, I have been working with the organizers of the ACM Conference on
Universal Usability (http://www.acm.org/sigs/sigchi/cuu/) which will specifically include a
policy component. The conference is in cooperation with SIGGRAPH. Quoting from the
Call for Participation:
"The start of the next millennium can be characterized by progress in computing and
communications technology. Cheaper and faster processors, storage, and networks
combined with better user interfaces have now spawned the incredible growth of the
Internet and related services. But too often system complexity, incompatible software or
file formats, poorly crafted interfaces, and inadequate attention to diverse users leads to
confusion, frustration, and failure. It's time to address this challenge."
"We invite submissions for the first ACM Conference on Universal Usability, to be held in
Washington, D.C., November 16 and 17, 2000. We seek work whose aim is to enable the
widest range of users to succeed in their use of technology for information,
communications, entertainment, education, e-commerce, and community and
government services. Challenges include the diversity of users (experts & novices, old &
young, educated & illiterate, disabled, forgotten, those in ill health, etc.); the wide range of
technology (e.g., 100:1 ratios in processor and network speeds); and the gap between
what users know and what they need to know."
"We are interested in research, new systems and technologies, empirical evaluations,
policy suggestions, and systems that support community activities. The diverse set of
participants will include researchers, technologists, policy makers, advocates, and users."
For readers further interested in the digital divide, there are a number of on-line resources.
Among these are (http://www.digitaldividenetwork.org/). In reviewing a recent Stanford
study (http://www.stanford.edu/group/siqss/Press_Release/press_detail.html), Jakob
Neilsen wrote (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20000220.html):
"The study's analysis of the digital divide is credible because issues like race, education,
and age are precisely defined and can be reported very accurately in a survey as long as
the respondent feels comfortable that the survey is being administered by a credible
institution (Stanford would certainly count here) and that the answers will be treated
"When splitting out the effect of the various variables,
the study finds the following three
main effects on Internet access:
1. Education (having a college degree): +49%
2. Age (older people compared with 18-25 years' olds): -43%
3. Income (having high income): +21%"
"My interpretation of this finding is that the digital divide is a usability problem. The
politicians are targeting the wrong part of the problem when they treat the digital divide as
an economic issue. True, there is a (smaller) problem due to the expense of computers, but
this third-level problem is rapidly vanishing and will be completely gone in a few years when
computers will cost the same as donuts." [Also tending to shrink the problem is better
access via libraries and schools, both to computers and to gain experience in their use. -
"Old people will not go away. In fact, people who are currently in their 40s and 50s will be
around for a long time to come. We can't simply write them off just because kids have
fewer problems using computers. The same is true for people without a college education.
We can't force them all to go back to school for four years simply in order to participate in
The Stanford study itself says:
"21 percent of differences in Internet access can be explained by demographic factors. By
far the most important factors facilitating or inhibiting Internet access are education and
age, and not income - nor race/ethnicity or gender, each of which account for less than 5
percent change in rates of access and are statistically insignificant. By contrast, a college
education boosts rates of Internet access by well over 40 percentage points compared to
the least educated group, while people over 65 show a more than 40 percentage point drop
in their rates of Internet access compared to those under 25. Age really reflects
generational differences, and thus shows what to expect in the future."
Another columnist, Neal Pierce, also claims that the Digital Divide is an issue of usability
Another take on the issue comes from The Center for the New West
(http://www.newwest.org/). Their study shows that location is a major factor with rural
areas, small towns, inner cities and some suburban areas having distinctly less than first
class Internet access.
Perhaps one of the most perceptive comments I've heard recently came from the
producer of the PBS series on the digital divide. He said, in effect, that it was a complex,
multi-dimensional problem, where for example, race was an important factor at lower
income levels, but was essentially not an issue at higher income levels.
This SIGGRAPH member also asked about our apparent lack of activity in influencing
policy makers. While we are in the process of defining a project with the National Research
Council in computer graphics research, we have indeed not been very active in this area.
Primarily we've worked with others by participating in last year's USACM Congressional
briefing and organizing sessions at policy oriented conferences such as the CFP (see
There are a couple of reasons. First, I believe that it is inappropriate to take positions on
issues on behalf of SIGGRAPH members; therefore our role is primarily supplying
information on the technical implications of policy decisions. Policy makers are open to
information on a subject, but the timing of opportunities for this are typically less than
obvious and often precede open public discussion. Timing is everything and that requires
active staff work monitoring the activities of policy makers. SIGGRAPH has not
committed any human or financial resources for this task and even ACM has a very small
presence in Washington DC and none in any other capital.
Second, my experience is that policy makers typically want to hear from constituents,
contributors and representatives of organized groups. The first two do not include us,
except as individuals and the last requires the kind of staff work and presence which we
don't have as described above. Just like efficiency dictates that we have a
representative form of government, it also means that our policy makers need to hear
from representatives. At CFP2000, one U.S. government official mentioned that a recent
call for comments resulted in over 60,000 email responses, several dozen of which were
over 100 pages long. While these responses represent a wealth of information, even the
most well staffed organization cannot do justice to such a massive amount of
A few years ago, several of us organized a briefing on computer graphics at one of the Los
Angeles SIGGRAPH conferences. We were realistic in our expectations and concentrated
our invitations on U.S. government representatives with strong business, scientific and
California connections, California State government people and non-United States
scientific liaisons in Los Angeles consulates. Out of these hundreds of people, many of
whom received follow-up telephone calls, we had less than 5 acceptances and cancelled
the briefing. The problem probably was that at that time, very few of our invitees had
immediate need for our information. Again, timing is everything. It is of course possible to
get policy makers to listen to you at any time, but doing so when the topic is not a current
agenda item, requires a lot of work, again as described above.