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On September 11, 1940 the first public demonstration of remote work took place. Scientists shocked the world when they were able to perform calculations on computers that were miles away using telephone lines. Eighty-one years later, the once radical concept of remote work has become a prominent part of our society, particularly as the ongoing global pandemic compels many to work away from the office.
Although remote working has been around for decades, millions of Americans have historically lacked access to remote working technologies and many continue to face such barriers today. In the early 1900’s many women and BIPOC programmers were actually at the forefront of advances being made in computing and remote work. For instance, Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer and Mary Allen Wilkes, the first person to build and work from a home computer, were both women. Mark Dean co-created one of the first popularized personal computers while other BIPOC mathematicians such as Katherine Johnson and Evelyn Granville made crucial advances in computing that made telework possible decades later. At the time, computers were primarily available in research labs or corporate settings where they were equally accessible to workers using these technologies. However, as personal computers became popularized in the 1980s and essential for receiving an education in technological fields, many BIPOC and women no longer had equal access to the technologies that they had helped build. Personal computers were unaffordable for many, required community infrastructure such as internet access that was often unavailable, and were seen as better suited for men.
In 1995, the U.S. department of commerce noted a significant technological gap between rural and urban Americans which became known as the “digital divide”. This lack of access to technology was soon found to affect not just rural Americans, but BIPOC communities, women, and the eldery because of systemic differences in wealth, infrastructure and cultural attitudes.
Today, as schools open online for the fall and the country continues to increase its remote working operations, our digital divide grows. Check out the resources below to learn more about the history of telework, America’s digital divide, and how COVID-19 is shaping the conversation around access to technology today.
“Understanding America’s Digital Divide” by Robert Longley, ThoughtCo
An in-depth breakdown of the digital divide throughout American history and how unequal access to technology is exacerbating socioeconomic inequalities today.
“Working From Home Poses Hurdles for Employees of Color” by Nelson D. Schwartz, The New York Times
Employees of color often face barriers to accessing teleworking technologies and remaining heard inside virtual spaces, causing many to express concern that they will be left behind in an increasingly digital work environment.
“Not in the Same Boat: Career Progression in the Pandemic” by Ben Rogers, Qualtrics
Remote working has had disproportionately negative effects on the career advancement of women, minorities, low-income workers, and parents, according to this recent study.
“Unequally disconnected: Access to online learning in the US” by Victoria Collis and Emilania Vegas, Brookings Institute
Historically vulnerable students in low-income, rural, and minority communities continue to be the most disadvantaged in virtual environments because of a lack of access to technological devices and internet connection.
“Imagine Online School in a Language You Don’t Understand” by Rikha Sharma Rani, The New York Times
Children whose parents don’t speak English are facing an exceptionally difficult time transitioning to online classrooms this year in comparison to children with non-immigrant parents.
“Can we alleviate racism and systemic inequality by expanding broadband during COVID-19?” by Brookings Institution (2020)
This thought-provoking webinar explores why expanding internet access to all is a crucial step towards mitigating systemic inequality in America.
“Coronavirus And The Digital Divide” by Cardiff Garcia and Stacey Vanek Smith, The Indicator from Planet Money (2020)
This podcast explores the ethics of remote working and how COVID-19 is exposing nationwide issues in access to technology.