“Man’s scientific genius and technological ingenuity has dwarfed distance and placed time in chains. Jet planes have compressed into minutes distances that once took days and months to cover…

“Through our scientific genius we have made this world a neighborhood; now through our moral and spiritual development, we must make of it a brotherhood. In a real sense, we must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools. ”
    — Martin Luther King, Jr., Lincoln University 1961

This is even more true in the age of the Internet. Connections between ideas and people are not limited by geography or time. I’ve gotten used to wishing “good morning!” to an IM buddy from India when I get a message at 10pm. Martin Luther King said “We have allowed our civilization to outdistance our culture.” I believe that is still true today. “Civilization refers to what we use; culture refers to what we are. Civilization is that complex of devices, instrumentalities, mechanisms and techniques by means of which we live. Culture is that realm of ends expressed in art, literature, religion and morals for which at best we live.”

The treatment of black people in this country has dramatically improved since 1961. Its illegal to segregate schools and lunch counters. However, we have not yet created a society where all people are treated equally. Despite the awesome power of the Internet to bridge distance and provide universal access to information, there exists a well-documented digital divide. A Nation Online by the U.S. Dept of Commerce (Appendix Table 1) reports that while Internet use has grown over the past few years, there still remains a wide gap between white Internet users (65%) and black Internet users (45%). In looking at the differences with respect to income and education the gaps are even more dramatic.

I have worked with hundreds of software engineers, and throughout all of that experience only two of them have been black. Despite there being 13% black and 4% asian americans (2003 population), I’ve worked with more asians. (As an aside, I believe I’ve worked with more asian engineers than women engineers — a related, but different phenomenon.)

Today as we honor Martin Luther King with a day off from work and school, I think it is important to consider how each of us in our own lives and in our own interactions with others can create a society where people are judged by their own merit and where we can create opportunities that overcome historic biases toward race, gender and class.

What do you think?