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Critical Moment Arrives for Achieving an Equitable Digital Future

Fallon S. Wilson / Jul 18, 2023

Fallon S. Wilson, Ph.D. is a Co-Founder of the #BlackTechFutures Research Institute housed at Stillman College.

Memphis, Tennessee, one of the cities assessed in Dreaming of a Black Tech Future: A Digital Equity Assessment of Local Black Tech Ecosystem. Shutterstock

Technologists and tech enthusiasts have been buzzing about the potential benefits and dangers of artificially intelligent (AI) software programs, such as ChatGPT.

With such gains in popularity and use, many industries are on the verge of disruption. Artists worldwide saw their industries turn as programs like Lensa prompted security concerns and when AI-generated artwork won a state fair competition, leaving human artists outraged. Further, health professionals are now having conversations about whether AI technology is better than doctors at detecting breast cancer. In all of the national discourse, one thing is clear: AI software is the present and it is the future.

But how prepared are we to manage the ripple effects these computer-generated systems will have on our way of life - especially in Black communities in the United States? When a report from McKinsey and Company estimates that Black workers, highly situated in support roles, are more likely to lose their jobs to automation and when 50 percent of Black workers have limited or no digital skills, it is clear that we are ill-prepared. In this computer-generated, post-pandemic context, Black people’s health - their actual ability to maintain or regain their health to stay alive - is even at risk. Sixty-three percent of Black adults report not having high-speed Internet puts them at a major disadvantage when it comes to connecting with doctors and medical professionals, and Black Americans are 35 percent less likely than White Americans to use telehealth services.

If vulnerable Black populations and other marginalized communities are already struggling to navigate the digital world we currently inhabit, how are cities and states preparing citizens to thrive in this new economy, especially when many residents don’t have access to the Internet and Internet-enabled devices that help them to navigate? The situation is bleak when 29 percent of Black adults do not have a home Internet connection; just 65 percent of Black adults have a computer in their homes (compared to 80 percent of White adults), and only 74 percent of Black residents living in rural America have broadband service available where they live, compared to 96 percent of all Americans.

These disparities pushed me to co-found the #BlackTechFutures Research Institute at Stillman College. The #BlackTechFutures Research Institute works to build robust, sustainable Black tech ecosystems locally and nationally. We recently launched the Black Tech Ecosystem Index to evaluate how well Black institutions and individuals are positioned to thrive in the current digital economy and future automated workforce.

Starting in Houston, Nashville, Birmingham, and Memphis, we used our index, which relies on 57 indicators and 160 metrics, to determine the health of each city’s ecosystem. In our recently published reports for each city, Dreaming of a Black Tech Future: A Digital Equity Assessment of Local Black Tech Ecosystem, we provide a letter grade on the health of each ecosystem, recommendations on how to maximize and expand the capacity for existing community assets to bridge the digital divide, and recommendations on how to leverage the federal Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program and Digital Equity Act (DEA) funding.

This federal funding could represent a generation-shifting investment in local communities - if states apply and plan to spend the resources equitably in local municipalities across each state. As part of the groundbreaking Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), BEAD provides $42.45 billion to expand high-speed internet access by funding planning, infrastructure deployment and adoption programs in all 50 states, U.S. territories, and Washington D.C. Meanwhile, the DEA provides $2.75 billion to establish three grant programs that promote digital equity and inclusion. Each of the DEA programs aim to ensure that all people and communities have the skills, technology, and capacity needed to reap the full benefits of our digital economy.

The DEA funding is a watershed moment for state governments. It is an unprecedented opportunity to dream big and ensure all residents have an opportunity to thrive. The three DEA programs: the State Digital Equity Planning Grant, a $60 million grant program for states, territories and tribal governments to develop digital equity plans; the forthcoming Digital Equity Capacity Building Grant Program, a $1.44 billion grant program to build capacity for programs that promote digital equity; and the forthcoming Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program - require careful consideration, intentional use of resources, and thoughtful planning if we are serious about digital equity.

The #BlackTechFutures Ecosystem Index is designed to help municipalities better understand how to maximize their existing resources and identify the opportunities they can capitalize on to ensure residents thrive. As states are planning how to use these federal funds now, an assessment of the health of its municipalities’ tech ecosystems may prove beneficial for generations to come.

Paying close attention to how this federal funding is spent and demanding that it is spent equitably is critical to our survival - especially for those in our most vulnerable communities. If we don’t plan to spend these resources wisely, we will inevitably reinforce a world where some of us are able to “pull ourselves up by the bootstraps,” forgetting that some of us don’t even have boots - or broadband.

If we really want to make sure all communities are prepared to navigate an AI-enabled world, we must first make sure the communities we live in are investing in our success. The future depends on it.

Authors

Fallon S. Wilson
Fallon S. Wilson, Ph.D. is co-founder of the #BlackTechFutures Research Institute housed at Stillman College. Wilson is also vice president of tech policy at the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC).

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