The Second Wave of the Digital Divide

It used to be about Internet access. Now it's access to top jobs and capital to create diverse content.

Put differently, the first digital divide was about access to and consumption of the Internet, the World Wide Web and multiple “cool” applications. Today, the second digital divide is about access to the senior positions and financial capital that would make media content more relevant to more Americans.

The issue of the need for expanded access to senior positions and capital in order to make the big screens and little screens better reflect the kind of society revealed by the last election has already arrived. These are matters not only of TV entertainment but of the necessary social cohesion, mutual understanding and respect for alternative or parallel narratives required for a democratic and globally competitive nation, especially one in which minorities will be the majority in just a generation.

Alas, there is no simple solution to these challenges, and many of us must play our part:

* Hollywood needs to expand its pipelines of recruitment and aggressively seek out and mentor diverse talents who are already available to write even more popular TV, radio, video games and other content — and not just at entry levels, but all along the upward professional tracks that characterize the Los Angeles media guild system.

* Washington, especially the Federal Communications Commission, needs to guarantee the openness, competitiveness and minimal barriers to entry that innovation requires. This can start with supporting the research required to let the FCC Commissioners know what will happen to the voices of women, people of color and residents of rural areas and urban neighborhoods if further consolidation of large media conglomerates is encouraged.

* Communities of color need to seize whatever educational opportunities they can (which shrunk as the economy fell to its knees) and learn the skills and cultures of media and entertainment.

* Educators must broaden their siloed views of teaching to get ahead. Black study experts should pay more attention to the empowerment (and disempowerment) possibilities of the new ICTs, just as those in the communication field must pay more attention to diversity not as an afterthought but as an issue that must be front and central. 

There is a lot of responsibility and work to go around. But we all must start by recognizing that the scissors effect can cut deeply and permanently if we don’t take steps now to protect and nurture our American future. This is not a black or white issue. This is an American issue.

Ernest James Wilson III, Ph.D., is Walter Annenberg Chair in Communication and dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. He was elected to the American Academy for Arts and Sciences in 2012, and he delivered the W.E.B. Du Bois Lectures at Harvard University last November.