Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Luddites, Terrified or Too Poor to Matter

In contemporary America and most of the developed world, access to the worldwide web defines a very large proportion of our business and social connectivity. Yet I must say that I am constantly stunned in my own media and entertainment world at how many senior citizen executives never touch a keyboard and if there is an email exchange, it is always through the efforts of their administrative assistants. I can understand folks who retired years ago, shuddering at the thought of a new alien technology that they simply do not understand, connected mostly with a QWERTY keyboard that they have never used, but for those still active in their professions….

Even Presidential candidate, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a 61-year-old who sits on several subcommittees where Internet connectivity really matters (Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies;Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related AgenciesSubcommittee on Defense, etc., etc.), said this in a March Meet the Press interview: ““I don’t email… You can have every email I’ve ever sent. I’ve never sent one.” Oy!

For kids growing up, not having full computer and Web access, including a familiarity with standard programs like MS Office (or equivalent) and a clear writing style, is a slam to their potential for future employment. For many inner city youths, the school computers have too many students assigned to each unit (where the school even has computers), there are computers and software from a bygone era or only broken machines with no or limited web access. Many connect only through social media solely through their ubiquitous smart phones, but these are toys for pleasure where the business software functionality is replaced by fun apps.

Today 37 million adult Americans don’t access the web. “Of the next six adults you meet, chances are one of them has never sent an e-mail. He's never done a Google search, never been Rickrolled.[[i]] He thinks ‘doge’ [woof woof] refers to a historical Italian government official. (Wow; very anachronism.)... He will probably never read this story.
“It might seem inconceivable that in 2015 there could still be Americans who don't use the Internet — but they exist. Far from being irrelevant to modern society, they're increasingly the target of millions, if not billions, of dollars of taxpayer and private funding for Internet access. And that makes them a really important slice of the population.” Washington Post, July 29th.
An examination of who uses the Web, who has familiarity with connective and functional software, is a representation of some of that overall polarization that seems to define the American political and economic landscape. Let’s look at how Internet usage has grown: “For the first 13 years of the decade, Americans embraced the Internet at a whirlwind pace. The percentage of Americans who use the Internet grew to 84 percent in 2013 from 52 percent at the turn of the century, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
“But since 2013, the percentage of American adults who go online has remained virtually unchanged, according a new Pew study released on [July 28th]. The 15 percent of Americans who still do not use the Internet is essentially the same portion as in 2013.” New York Times (Bits), July 28th.
That Pew study reports that: “A third of non-internet users (34%) did not go online because they had no interest in doing so or did not think the internet was relevant to their lives. Another 32% of non-internet users said the internet was too difficult to use, including 8% of this group who said they were ‘too old to learn.’ Cost was also a barrier for some adults who were offline – 19% cited the expense of internet service or owning a computer.
“The latest Pew Research analysis also shows that internet non-adoption is correlated to a number of demographic variables, including age, educational attainment, household income, race and ethnicity, and community type.
“Seniors are the group most likely to say they never go online. About four-in-ten adults ages 65 and older (39%) do not use the internet, compared with only 3% of 18- to 29-year-olds. Household income and education are also indicators of a person’s likelihood to be offline. A third of adults with less than a high school education do not use the internet, but that share falls as the level of educational attainment increases. Adults from households earning less than $30,000 a year are roughly eight times more likely than the most affluent adults to not use the internet.
“Rural Americans are about twice as likely as those who live in urban or suburban settings to never use the internet. Racial and ethnic differences are also evident. One-in-five blacks and 18% of Hispanics do not use the internet, compared with 14% of whites and only 5% of English-speaking Asian-Americans – the racial or ethnic group least likely to be offline.”
I guess if you are retired, other than missing out on communicating with children and grandchildren, you probably aren’t tanking your needed job skills or earning power, but for every other demographic cohort noted above, lacking those Web/computer skills is the twenty-first century’s equivalent of illiteracy. It is also perhaps an unwelcomed isolation from those in the rest of the world who communicate primarily through digital images and writings. Strange that ISIS itself seems to understand the necessity of harnessing the Web for its own malevolent purposes, so n’t we care about those of our citizenry who can’t get to the Web?
The government is trying to address this polarizing anomaly. “The Federal Communications Commission recently opened a proceeding that would subsidize Internet plans for poor people. It has expanded its broadband funding for schools and libraries by $1 billion a year. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is working with Google, Sprint and other Internet providers to put discount broadband services in public housing projects.” The Post. Public schools, facing budget cuts, are looking to private companies to contribute equipment and access as well. Public libraries are also trying to provide venues where computer and web access can be made available to those who would otherwise miss the opportunity, often with free classes on how to use them.
Which brings me to the question of exactly how fundamental is computer and Internet literacy to someone living in contemporary America? Is it basic, like electricity or running water, or simply a privilege for those who can afford it? And what are the consequences for those “without” and the greater impact on society as a whole? Is such access one of those basic elements of our growing polarization and income inequality that must be solved… or just tough luck?
I’m Peter Dekom, and as society’s capacities and basics expand and increase in complexity, we need to address those who seem to be left behind by such changes.

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