Luxury or necessity? Eleven-year-old James High pondered the meaning of each word. He considered the personal computer in front of him beforeanswering the question. "It's sort of both," said High, a sixth-grader at Stonewall Middle School. When he and others at the James Paige Learning Center use a computer to change the screensaver or to play Hearts, that's a luxury.But some people need computers for their work, and that makes them a necessity, he said.He hopes to get one at home soon. He will use it to play games, which is a luxury. But he will also use it to type and to print things for homework. Homework, unfortunately, is a necessity. But he and his classmates could always do it the old-fashioned way. They could look up sharks and mammals, rocks and wars in the regular encyclopedia, and copy facts into their own words. If you think of it that way, a computer is not so
ecessary after all. But they are, says Pat Fot, director of the YWCA's Child Enrichment Center. Starting in elementary school, students are expected to research topics and to write about what they learn. "You want the most current information, and that's not necessarily in books in the library, but on the computer," Fot said. The child with a computer at home can find all this information, plus become comfortable with a tool he or she will encounter later in life. "You'd be surprised at how many kids do not have access to the Internet," said Fot. The U.S. Department of Commerce found that 93.8 percent of American households have telephones. Thirty-six percent have home computers, and 18.6 percent have Internet access. Electronic mail access has increased almost 400 percent since 1994, according to the 1999 report "Falling through the Net II." But the divide between computer haves and have-nots has grown since 1994. People in rural areas and inner cities, poor families, black families and those headed by young parents or by single mothers are less likely to have computers and Internet access at home, compared to other families. Computers, as well as Internet access, are not luxuries, ays Kanawha County Public Library Director Linda Wright. If some people have access, everyone should have access. It's the same standard she applies to books, newspapers and magazines in a democratic society. Such a system relies on an informed, educated population, with easy access to information. More and more, these days, information is available online. "If you don't have that access, you're going to be disenfranchised," Wright said.