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Digital Divide – Not just for breakfast anymore.

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.

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Christopher Whitaker

I agree 100% – while it’s easy for us on GovLoop to think of ways we can leverage our new technology, but the reality is that not everyone is as tech-savvy as we take for granted.

I know some states have moved to where you have to file internet unemployment claims online – because it’s easier to process them this way. We havn’t and I don’t think they will – there are just too many people who arn’t comfortable on the computer yet.

Michele Costanza

Hi Sonny: You’ve written an excellent piece here. I think it’s great that you volunteer at the library to teach computer literacy.

I’d like to offer some constructive counterpoints to what you presented.

My understanding of the Digital Divide is mostly about the differences in access to technology such as computers and the Internet. What percentage of Americans has absolutely no access, including that offered at public libraries?

When we refer to the “haves and have-nots” in regard to technology, are we really referring to people who haven’t yet learned how to send email or update their friends on Facebook or tweet or fill out forms online? According to the theories you’ve presented, the Digital Divide is one between the “haves” who are inevitably younger with knowledge of new technology platforms, and the “have-nots” who are inevitably older.

However, the wealth in this country is still concentrated among the older generations, not the young. I was under the impression the “haves” are those with access and the ability to learn new technology, while the “have-nots” are those with no access and no method of learning how to use it.

I picture the Digital Divide between two types of people. I am just offering an example. One is a “have,” a person living in the United States with a microwave oven, cable tv, cell phone, digital camera, automobile, or access to public transportation, and access to computers and the Internet at work or at public libraries. The other person is a “have-not,” living in an undeveloped country where 60% of those who aren’t provided with literacy to read and write are girls, writing in the dirt with sticks, conducting school under a tree, with not only a lack of access to computers but a lack of access to writing utensils, like pens and paper.

When GenYers get older, and the next younger generation starts to invent new technology platforms beyond Facebook, Twitter, and online communities, the GenYers will need to learn the new technology and keep up the pace.

Is the Digital Divide really based on age or access?

Sonny Hashmi

Thanks Michele for your excellent and interesting input.

You raise a brilliant question. In order to address an issue, you have to define it. How does on frame the issue of Digital Divide? I suspect the answer would be different based on who you ask. It can be framed as “those who have access and those who don’t”, or “those who have ability vs. those who don’t”.

The access equation is difficult to solve, but it is a measurable, addressable problem. Several initiatives in recent years, such as the OLTP program, the Google Broadband initiative, and the overall emphasis on broadband connectivity within the US recovery act point to the fact that most folks are focussing on the access problem. The underlying assumption is “if you build it, they will come”. If we can provide access to computing and network resources, people will learn, engage, innovate, communicate and elevate. There is some truth to this assumption. However, my personal feeling is that this assumption leaves out the underlying issue that haunts wide swaths of our population.

In my case study, the individual I referred to was not living in a rural/remote area and access is certainly not an issue. Broadband as well as free dialup internet access is readily available in this neighborhood, as well as several free internal cafes, libraries, and other access points. 3G/4G service is even available via cell phones which carriers are now giving away. In this particular case, the issue was that of ability. For whatever reason, this individual was never pulled into the fray of modern knowledge and ability to use computers and the internet.

I wonder how many others are like him. Yes the elderly is a prime demographic for this issue. But what about the poor? the homeless? the immigrants? the intellectually challenged? the orphans? the minimum wage workers? To me, the digital divide is a multi dimension concept. How to identify and address barriers to eliminate the lack of access and ability for those who are “disenfranchised” from the digital revolution. Especially if you consider that increasingly, the ability and access to professional opportunities, white collar, and even blue collar good old middle class jobs now rely on a person’s ability to use a computer, is leading to a situation where an immigrant kid, or an inner city kid, or a kid growing up in a group home, who has never been exposed to professional use of computers will never have the same opportunities as his/her peers who grew up with access, and as a result had developed the ability.

There are no simple answers here. Programs that may help the elderly must be very different than those that may help inner city schools, etc. However, I think the risks are becoming real and dire. We have a large aging population in this country. They will need to rely on technology to access basic benefits, knowledge, instructions, etc. Are we as an industry and as a nation prepared to support them through it? I worry that we are not, leading to many more getting left behind.

Thanks again for your insight. Always great to hear a fresh perspective

Michele Costanza

Sonny: One of the greatest challenges for schools, regardless of their socio-economic status, is getting young people to spend as much time on their studies, on reading, writing, and doing their homework, as they spend watching tv, playing video games, and socializing with their friends.

As far as ability, if a person is unable to learn basic computer literacy skills or use a computer even with assistive technology, they will probably also need help filling out forms using paper and pencils.

If anything, technology has made it even easier and more convenient for people with a wide-range of skill levels and abilities to fill out forms, use maps, and find information. Those who may not be able to use a Yellow Pages phone book, if they lack an understanding of how the information is organized, would have an easier time doing a Google search. It’s easier to write one resume and post it to a job bank database and submit it to numerous employers than it is to type and copy multiple resumes and mail them out through the postal service and keep track.

I learned how to type on a manual typewriter, not even an electric typewriter. I spent the better part of my childhood without cable tv, a remote control, a cell phone, email, the Internet, or a microwave oven. I know that times have changed. However, it’s a little extreme to say that an employer is putting an employee at dire health risk by expecting in the year 2010 to fill out forms online. The cognitive skill level required of filling out forms online is no different than filling out forms with paper and pencil.

(Edited for typos.)

Sonny Hashmi

More good points Michele,

I tend to agree with you in that technology does tend to make day to day business of the people easier, but I dont agree that if a person is unable to learn basic computer literacy skills or use a computer, they will probably need help otherwise, implying that they dont meet the basic cognitive skill for taking care of their business needs. I think the case study I mentioned highlights it.

As far as technology making conducting business easier both for the customer and the service provider, again, I caution myself from making that assumption. Technology certainly makes it easier for me. As an individual I prefer to go online rather than having to fill out forms or go to the DMV/HR Office. However, I am fortunate in that along the way, at a certain point in time, I learned how to use a computer, get online, and used it frequently enough for it to become second nature. Most of us did. My parents did too. My my grandparents never did. Not because they couldn’t afford a computer or didn’t have three generations of geeks around to help them. But because, why bother. They are still alive and well. When there is an issue with social security, or a doctor’s bill, or with the DMV, they call the SSA, the doctor’s office or go to the DMV. Its inconvenient, but they have never known any different. What if one day the Social Security Administration stopped picking up the phone, asking them to go create an account online to access their benefits tomorrow? I shudder to think what the almost 90 year old couple will need to do to get to that level of access/familiarity/understanding. What if they didnt have children or grandchildren to help them through this? There are many in that boat. And that population is scheduled to grow before it gets small again, thanks to the baby boomers.

I agree that the answer to this isnt to perpetually provide alternate paper or in person channels to the population who doesnt want to catch on. However, my point simply is that as a society, we aren’t even trying to bring them along. They have been left behind. We need to take more action to actively bring the population along, including the elderly, the poor, the illiterate, the unfortunate, the far flung and everyone else in between. Bold action similar to the one taken in Finland would go a long way. In addition, we need social outreach and adult education programs focussed on this, available as part of the employer mandated personal development. For example, the government can mandate that all employers receiving any type of government subsidy must provide a class on basic computer skills to its workforce. Similarly, as part of the broadband stimulus funding, government can set aside grants for libraries, schools and other community centers to provide such eduction to their constituents. A lot can be done, but the problem wont go away on its own.

Just a rambling string of thoughts. Thanks for listening

Michele Costanza

Sonny: I’m not arguing against providing people with training to keep up with advances in technology. However, I am suggesting that a person who is cognitively able to operate a TV remote control, surf multiple cable tv channels, operate a motor vehicle, use a telephone, and heat up food in a microwave oven, will not have problems learning how to use a computer for the purposes of filling out forms online, which is the case study you used. Clearly, some technology is highly intuitive and easy for people to use and learn with minimal training. Why should accessing information online be any different?

Perhaps the problem is with the usability of the agency’s website and not with the cognitive abilities of the end users.

What happens when your grandparents are physically unable to go to the government agencies? Won’t it be beneficial to them and your family that they have the ability to access what they need online?

If advocating for the need for closing the Digital Divide in the U.S. is about receiving government funding to train people how to use computers, more research should be done so that funding is spent in the right way, not thrown at a problem that doesn’t really exist. Maybe funding would be better spent on improving the usability and intuitiveness of government agency websites and technology or in making even more technological advancements and improvements.

Faye Newsham

Michele: Although we term the Digital Divide as a socio-economic issue of access, I think the more critical factor is that, unlike English or Algebra, we do not teach fluency in the topic. At best we or our kids are taught keyboarding and the rest just “happens.” And heaven help our 40 year old gentleman who only knows “online” by way of television (a poor guide where “stupid” adults are ridiculed for their offline sensibilities). The fear of the unknown and unfamiliar is real and palpable for perfectly normal adults and even more so for those with limited access (say very rural or through communal tools such as local library systems). Our kids have grown up reading online but very few have been taught HOW to do so well. I argue that there is some responsibility of the education system, adult learning, HR departments, etc. to bolster the efforts of local libraries and volunteers in bridging the gap. I also argue that our schools need to address this (and maybe are as our teachers become more and more tech savvy).

Of course a well designed system is easier to use than a poorly designed one… no one is proposing laws to prevent bad ones from being deployed every day (as we all know they are). Dangerouse misinformaiton is easily available. Could you tell me how to determine a “good” website resource from a “bad” one for purposes of a formal paper? How about for a specific topic? We can’t even “prove” that our President was born in the US according to a great number of internet users. There are many, many layers of fluency and the divide will get worse before it gets better.

Sonny: So how did you get involved and how can I get involved in a program like at your library??!! Sounds like fun.

Sonny Hashmi

Hi Faye,

Thanks for the insightful comments. I agree wholeheartedly. I think there is a minimal “barrier to entry” that is needed to be overcome before anyone can get comfortable in using computers and the web. This barrier is not large, and most of us, especially the kids overcome it naturally the first time they use a computer. Its funny how my 4 year old is perfectly capable of using our home computer and the ipad to play his numbers and letters games, and even kick off movies and tv shows, but my grandparents can’t.

However, for someone who doesn’t have access (no internet access, no computer at home or work, etc.), this barrier can be pretty challenging to overcome, especially in the later part of their adult life. I also agree that schools and HR departments should really look at providing some transitional training. Especially true in cases where organizations moving critical business processes online. The HR department should bear the burden of ensuring that the employee base can use the new tools and provide some transitional training.

I found out about this program when I went to the library one day and saw a flyer. LIbraries are woefully underfunded and are always looking for help. Most public libraries these days have a computer room and are always looking for people to help out. Our library has this program where people can sign up for introductory computer classes. I would check with yours, and if they don’t offer these classes, maybe it would be worthwhile to explore this idea. Another great resource in the community is senior centers (either public or private) who are always looking for help and someone who can stop by to help and teach basic computer skills are always welcome to do so.

Good luck and thanks so much for your interest

Dawn Lautwein

I really appreciated this article and actually got goosebumps on the last couple lines. Michele’s points are all very logical, but I know some of the people that Sonny is talking about, and they are very intelligent and otherwise capable, but there is a hurdle that is still there, logical or not. I don’t think it is limited to the elderly, but as you grow older, sometimes you are more aware of how many things can go wrong, so you aren’t as excited to just jump in and try things. Sure you could go to the library and dabble with a computer, but if you aren’t clear on how you’d even start, it is easy enough to keep postponing the trip. When you’ve gotten by without a computer for a substantial part of your life, it just doesn’t seem pressing. Pretty soon, it seems like everyone knows more than you do about it, and you are all the more initimidated. To then be forced into having to turn to a computer when something important to you is on the line makes it completely overwhelming. Once you’ve convinced yourself that you will have a hard time learning it, it becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophesy. I agree we need to keep the alternate channels open while increasing learning opportunities to ease the transition.

Caryn Wesner-Early

I’m with Dawn – before an organization (company, government, whatever) requires that all its constituents have to interact online, it needs to make sure that its constituents are able to do so. This includes all that we’ve been discussing – they need to have dependable access to a computer, and training in how to use it. Until all stakeholders are able to use the “new” way of doing things, they need to keep some of the “old” ways. Depending on who your stakeholders are, you may just have to wait for the currently-70-90-year-old people to pass on through, since it might be easier and cheaper to keep the old ways than to try to convert them.

Michele Costanza

@Sonny: You might be interested in reading Diffusion of Innovations by Everett Rogers. Those who need to be brought along to adopt new technology also need to be mindful of not hindering the advancement of the innovations to better everyone.

Michele Costanza

@Sonny: Also, data supports your views of a generational gap in regard to adopting new technology platforms, where GenXers and GenYers are adopting to Facebook, Twitter, and social networking sooner than older generations. I’m not disagreeing with that.

To say that it’s the 70-90 year-olds or the economically disadvantaged who need to adopt to technology may not necessarily be the case.

If you aren’t aware of my background, I taught special education. My doctorate is in educational communication and technology. I have taught graduate level courses online in instructional design for educational technology.

The advancements in technology have opened doors and made life so much easier for people. It’s extremely frustrating to me when people are given the access and the opportunity to adopt the technology, and they simply choose not to. If they had adopted the innovations earlier instead of waiting until they are forced, they would have had much more time to learn and feel more comfortable.

The case study that you provided about an employee/bus driver given six months to access information online to update his health benefits page, to me was not a very sympathetic character. To suggest that the employer would be liable in a court of law if the bus driver within six months time didn’t accurately update his information online would be an interesting case. I just don’t think he would win.

I still believe it is much more efficient to make an agency’s website more user friendly than to attempt (sometimes drag late adopters kicking and screaming) to train people on how to use a computer. It shouldn’t require that much training. The late adopters need to motivate themselves to learn the new technology.

Hope I clarified my points since a few people here in the discussion disagreed with me.

Sonny Hashmi

Thanks Michele,

I think you don’t quite understand the case study. The individual was not “given” six months to learn the new system. The organization changed the system to online only. This individual has been trying for six months without avail to get their benefits changed.

Personally it comes down to a question of fairness. Is it fair for the organization to expect an employee to learn a new technology to do something they have a right to do and is critical to their well being, without any prior training, coaching and access?

Also, I think you are approaching this issue from a level of higher order and are failing to understand the level of inability many face. Your comments reflect what I feel many people feel, that it is somehow the “late adopters” fault that they are in this situation and they should be made to get with the program “kicking and screaming”. I don’t agree with this. We are placing convenience and economy before people’s dignity. A bus driver should probably learn to use the computer in this day and age, but should they be forced to?

Your comment about making agency websites more user friendly is also valid, but again reflects an understanding of this issue at a higher level. You assume that the issue is that a novice computer user has issues using online systems because they are complex. My point is that many of these folks don’t even know how to use a mouse. They dont know what internet explorer is. They don’t even know what it means to “login”. Not because they are cognitively challenged, but because these concepts are foreign to a person who has been driving a bus for the last 30 years, or serving meals in a cafeteria. This basic 101 level education on computers cannot be considered a “given”. It needs to be taught, coached, and people given access and opportunity to learn in a non hostile, non accusatory environment where they dont feel that they are being penalized for being late adopters.

Michele Costanza

@Sonny: I have seen highly educated people, say faculty at a college or secondary school, who were late adopters to technology. They argued vehemently with the department chairs and the dean about receiving news via email distro list vs. paper memo placed in our mailboxes. We needed information immediately instead of possibly only once or twice a week when some faculty were on campus to check their mailboxes.

Please don’t make the assumption that late adopters to technology innovations are the uneducated or economically disadvantaged. That’s not a safe assumption to make.

If six months isn’t enough time to learn or use the technology innovation, if one considers accessing information and filling out forms online as “new” technology, how much time do you think it should take? Was the person in the case study you provided able to use a telephone and ask a benefits coordinator or a web master to walk him through the process of completing the forms online?

The Diffusion of Innovations book by Everett Rogers was first published in 1962. It explains a lot of how innovations are introduced and adopted throughout a culture, not just in regard to computers.

Faye Newsham


Brovo again on your cogent discourse. I am a help system author and website information architect. I’m also the parent of two teens. My parents are both early adopters of SOME technology. My father sold computer hardware when I was a tot, my mom is a librarian and I grew up with a microfiche reader and a card sorter in my house in the 1970s. My mom, who actively works today in databases, still manages to “loose” the bar at the bottom of the screen at least quarterly and calls me to help her find it. Dad is the WORST google user ever (if he’s looking for a book, I swear he start with “book” ). My kids find me antiquated and ludicris because I use punctuation in text messages and prefer a call over a text. My kids also have little to no training in the fluency of writing a research paper using peer reviewed sources. I consider that a travesty. Wikipeadia is not a resource for a paper (unless as an example of what “people” are saying!). I too worked with highly educated people (PhD’s can be the biggest babies) in the 80s and 90s when desktop publishing was not yet quite for everyone. These people knew there were resources they could use to avoid the technology they considered a waste of time or too secretarial. Your example of a bus driver is really useful to people who work in HRs, want to change a current culture, and/or just know about how people are motivated. It appears in your case that the HR department assumed everyone would have access and would transition without any support. My mom has delayed changing over a 401k because it is all online now and she wants to talk to people. “People” are not an option, so she has been delaying “dealing” with the necessity. Our bus driver is puzzled and hurt that his HR department would be so clueless as to assume he has access. If I had been rolling out this program, first there would be announcements ahead of time (change management) and offers of an in-house training session as it was deployed. If there is a centralized place where the non-office staff are (bus driver depot, break room, etc.), I would have installed a communal computer and provided brief instructions assuming a very low level of computer fluency. There is a big difference between a faculty member who prefers a paper newsletter to a worker suddenly unable to easily access information he/she could previously affecting their ability to get needed services.

This also reminds me of a former boss who when told we had to make certain forms and items accessible to screen readers online, said “why would we do that, no one in that job is blind” (in fact at least 2 people used screen readers who were legally blind but not entirely so). It was a plain assumption that was wrong. The amount of effort to do things “right” is typically just a good practice and just as easy to deploy as the “wrong” thing.