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Toys For Have-Nots

Bridging the great tech divide

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The sentiment behind the slogan "The one who dies with the most toys wins" seemed to pervade the Comdex 2000 computer expo held last April at McCormick Place. The convention center had a carnival atmosphere, with grown men in animal suits wandering the floor like baseball mascots, knocking hats off heads and offering hugs to passersby.

"This offers you more choices and options than any other device," explained a young technology maven to the crowd of corporate types rapidly assembling for her Pocket PC presentation, which was offered every hour. "You plug it right in, just like you do your laptop. It's got image editing tools...a GPS for your car, and you can also play Doom! Er, that's for the adults of course." Then she got right to the point. "It's pretty cool. As you can see, the graphics are awesome."

A TV cameraman knelt before the MainstreetIPO.com booth and filmed its screens and posters in a reverent upward shot.

But there were also appeals to individuals' better nature. One afternoon President Clinton took the podium and urged the technology companies to share. Donate computers to schools. Create educational software. Teach us your skills. Let us into the in-crowd. "I'm asking you to do this because you can," he said. "I'm asking you to do this because it's right."

Lots of people at the show were clearly enjoying being part of the in-crowd, even if they wouldn't have said so into a microphone. After all, what fun is it to have a toy if everyone can have it? How can there be an elite if no one's excluded?

The president wasn't the only one pleading for a more equitable distribution of the digital wealth. Tucked into one corner at the show was the less-than-glitzy booth of the Connecticut-based National Cristina Foundation, which works with the Chicago-based Assistive Technology Exchange Network. ATEN takes donated computers--only 486 or Pentium processors, please--loads them with basic software, and distributes them to schools in conjunction with the United Cerebral Palsy Association. "This allows people with disabilities to compete independently with those without disabilities," explains Pam Ross, director of ATEN. "It gives technology to those who need it." She says the program is looking toward the future by providing skills to kids with a disability that "enhance the possibility for independence 15 or 20 years from now," which, she notes, will expand the labor pool and increase the taxpayer base. But even she knows that isn't what appeals to the kids.

ATEN isn't the only program in town for the have-nots. Nestled in the River North district is i.c.stars, a program that trains economically disadvantaged 18- to 23-year-olds who've shown an aptitude for computers for careers in technology fields. "We're not saying 'please take a chance,'" explains executive director Leslie Beller, whose background is in social service. "You're lucky if you get one of our kids."

The 60-day training course gives students the skills to start as programmers at any of Chicago's technology firms, which are hungry for qualified employees. "Social service agencies used to focus on placing people in entry-level jobs in businesses," Beller says. "But now there's not much chance to advance past the mail room to secretary. There aren't many businesses left where you can work your way to being a vice president in 25 years--except in technology."

The students are also taught some of the rituals of the in-crowd. "They have high tea with a CEO each afternoon," Beller says. "It teaches them to relax. That way they'll have no trouble with clients."

Last summer ten students sat in the upstairs classroom at Closer Look, a digital-strategy firm on West Superior that's the project's main corporate sponsor. The room was equipped with computer workstations and an enormous conference table--around which the students sat, tiny teacups perched on napkins. They were talking the talk with one of the CEOs who regularly visit, Mark Tebbe, of Lante Corporation, a Chicago-based Internet consulting firm.

"We're 20 years into PCs, but we haven't even begun to scratch the surface of what they can be," Tebbe said, a gleam in his eye. "For kids starting grade school, [computer technology] is second nature. As people become more comfortable, the technology will be better. People--not technology--are the limitation. It's our lack of desire to change."

Around the table, baseball caps bobbed up and down, the students looking thoughtful as they managed their tea.

"A Palm Pilot has ten times more computing power than any spacecraft before the space shuttle," Tebbe said, shaking his head.

The students joined in an amicable discussion about the effectiveness of computer chips in cars, the public's tolerance of lower-quality products if they allow frequent upgrades, and the video games on the market in Japan--every person at the table could rattle off the specifications of any gaming system. Eventually, a student in a Star Wars T-shirt asked, What's to be made of society's new dependence on technology? Could we become so reliant on computers that interpersonal communication falls apart?

"It is a fundamental change, but society has a way of adjusting itself--look at the current push in society to cut back on television," Tebbe reassured him. "All these things are tools. Society may overuse them--especially when they're new. What do you do with a new car or new shirt? You're wearing it three times a week! Eventually this corrects itself." He searches briefly for another example. "Everyone was worried about kids with Nintendo games," he finally offered. "But they have amazing hand-eye coordination."

The students in the less-glamorous Chicago Public Schools program to broaden the distribution of computers probably aren't worried about overreliance on computers. The Time Dollar Cross-Age Peer Tutoring program, now in its fifth year at selected schools, promises a home computer to students who spend 100 hours tutoring their peers and can persuade their parents to donate eight hours of their time. More than 1,000 computers have been handed out this year to kids who've put in their time.

Last June a crowd of parents and students came to pick up their computers at Kennedy-King College. "This program is not designed to give you a computer from Best Buy or Circuit City," said Calvin Pearce, Time Dollar's volunteer director. "But you don't need a Maserati to get to the grocery store and bring food home." He explained that the donated computers had their own operating system, as well as a teaching program, a home-finance program, word-processing functions, and other basic capabilities. "There may be those who have a nicer computer than you, and more power to them," he said. "But you've got a PC that belongs to you, with a teaching program loaded on it--and Bill Gates didn't give it to you!" Then he urged any parents who were still inclined to go shopping to spend their money on a printer rather than on name-brand software. "Set [the computer's software] on level one," he said. "Get your feet wet--and then let the kids show you how to use levels two, three, and four." The crowd laughed.

A few months later, a quick phone survey showed a couple of families' computers were in the shop. One family had taken their computer home only to discover it had no software. But a few families' machines were up and running. "On and off we're using it," said Alicia Wright, mother of ten-year-old LaTonja. "My daughter plays on it and does some schoolwork. I don't know too much about it." LaTonja had the computer in her bedroom, set up on the desk where she did her homework.

"I know they said don't get any software," her mother continued. "But I'm debating--so I could learn. I need to know more about it before I get the Internet. There's so many other problems that come with that."

And so the knowledge trickles down.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Wes Pope/City 2000.

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