Go to any major city around the nation and talk to the Chief Technology Officer, and inevitably the issue of “Digital Divide” would come up. Typically, this topic comes up in conversation in the same way as one would talk about the issue of homelessness, inner city schools, drug abuse or many of the other ills that ail society. “Yeah isn’t it sad? Digital Divide is astonishing. We should do something about that”. Yet we move on to focus on releasing iphone apps, data feeds, automated CRMs, twitter feeds, and mashups, satisfied in our own cocoon that we are doing so much to “reach out” and “connect”.
But what are we doing to reach out across the Digital Divide?
I have several theories, as do others, regarding why the Digital divide issue never seems to gain critical mindshare. I think there are two destructive forces at play here:
1) The growing and general impression starting from the late Gen Xers and becoming entrenched in the millennials that those who find themselves on the other side of the Digital Divide have themselves to somehow blame. “Geez Garndpa. get with the program”. We secretly give this population the same respect as we would if we saw someone using a hand crank telephone, or a punch card, or a television with knobs to turn. “Get with the program”. and if you don’t, you have no one to blame but yourself. Why wouldn’t we feel this way? This generation can’t comprehend a time when there was no web, worse, when it was perfectly normal to not know how to operate a computer.
2) So far, digital divide issues have resulted in operational inconveniences for businesses and individuals, but have not led to life threatening consequences. In other words, even to this date, for critical business processes, such as banking, health case, benefits administration, payroll, taxation, commerce, etc., companies, organizations and government agencies continue to provide alternate paper or in-person mechanisms to conduct business for those constituents and customers for whom e-commerce or e-government is not an option. Can’t e-file? go to the tax office and get in line. Don’t have an email address or internet access? give us a call and wait half an hour. Don’t want to see your paycheck online or do EBT payroll? We will send you a form to fill and your check will get there in 3-5 business days.
I hate to say it, but if these assumptions are true, then things are getting worse fast.
1) The Gen Yers and Millennials are increasingly the ones calling the shots, designing and envisioning systems, channels and processes within corporations and government. Without an appreciation of Digital Divide issues, it is likely that as processes, systems and channels evolve, they will increasingly leave the less fortunate behind
2) We find ourselves at an inflection point where corporations and government, major organizations, are choosing to cut the chord, requiring that key business processes may only be conducted online. This trend can only continue in this direction
So why do I care?
I volunteer at a local library as a computer instructor. People in the community sign up for computer classes and one of us meets with them at the scheduled time and assists them with their issues. Typically, we see a lot of folks on the “other” side of the Digital Divide. Elderly residents, those who are not well to do, who are now finding it necessary to use a computer to type up a resume, send a letter, or simply look up a grand child’s pictures, or communicate with a loved one. Typical questions range from “what is this FaceBook thing?” to “How do I email?” or “How do I write a resume?”. Sometimes we get the occasional “How do I pay my bills online”. Skill levels range from folks who know the basic workings of a computer, to those who have never sat in front of one before.
Today was no different. I met with a gentleman who had never used a computer before. Before our session, I asked him how he was doing and he said that he was nervous. I could see the hesitation, the fear, the anxiety in his face of this “computer thing” that he has to learn. He also said that he knows that he has left himself far behind, and he doesn’t even know if he will ever be able to learn the computer. Not only had the rest of us left him behind, but clearly some of us had taken the liberty along the way to tell him how its his own damn fault.
The difference though, was that this gentleman did not fit the typical profile. He was in his late 40s, seemed to be in good intellectual and physical health, eager to learn and ask questions. He said that he loves football and Nascar and wants to know how to look up certain players and his favorite musicians. All signs of an eager and willing participant in the learning process.
Through our conversation, I found out that he is a bus operator for a local transit company, a non profit organization, heavily subsidized and quasi managed by the local city government. This gentleman does not have a computer at home, nor has he ever needed one. He doesn’t use a computer for his work either. However, his employer recently decided to move all HR processing and benefits administration exclusively to a new online system. He has been trying for the last six months, but cannot change his benefits, nor assign a beneficiary, unless he learns to use the computer, navigate the company’s HR web system, set up a profile, use a login name and password, sign up for an email address (for verification), use the email system, and set everything up through the multiple layers of authentication (complex passwords and PIN numbers included).
So this employer is putting one of their employees literally in harms way, causing a potential issue of life or death, by not allowing this employee an alternate mechanism to change benefits and chose beneficiaries. Should this employer be liable in case this person does not get the correct medical treatment because they were not able to sign up for appropriate benefits? Should the employer be required to provide basic computer training to its work force, and access to computers? Should all job descriptions and requirements be changed to add “must possess basic computer and online skills”?
For those who don’t grasp the gravity of this, it would be like Nasa requiring its janitorial staff to change their HR benefits and beneficiary information by creating a space fight map, using dark matter lasers, into a solid slab of kryptonite, while wearing space suits. Ridiculous.
Or is it?
Are we at a point in society that basic computer skills are a presumed necessary for all employees? Janitors, trash collectors, road pavers, prison guards, firefighters, restaurant line cooks, cafeteria lunch ladies, everyone? Can we now assume that EVERYONE knows how to operate a basic computer, navigate online websites, has an email address?
What if it was a matter of life and death?
What responsibility does the employer bear before making such a decision?
Its always great to talk about Digital Divide issues. But in the interest of modernization and efficiency, lets not forget those who we never seem to be able to help across this divide. Lets give them alternate channels to conduct their business. Lets not take their dignity away from them. Lets not make it their fault that the rest of the world moved past them, and no one bothered to hold their hand to bring them along.