Maybe you’ve heard of the “digital divide.”
It’s a term coined in the ’90s to refer to the mostly socioeconomic gap between people who can access information technologies and those who can’t. The concept gave thinkers and policymakers a grasp on a new problem: For more people to prosper, the digital divide would need to be closed.
I’ve been thinking about digital divides a lot lately, but rarely in this traditional sense. Tech has come a long way in 20 years, and it’s raised all kinds of sticky new issues. It’s made me think: If we take a fresh look at what divides us in our use of tech, we might get a better grip on whether we’re headed somewhere we want to be.
So here goes: I think there are four digital divides that matter. As we consider them, ask yourself: Where am i on these divides? And do they all demand to be resolved, or in some ways, protected?
The biggest of these four divides is the tried-and-true question of access — with a twist. Information technologies remain out of reach for too many, but they have become more portable and more affordable. They’ve made it to more corners of the world, as many hoped to see, but as University of Washington professor Beth Kolko has seen in her global research, the presence of a computer or phone or 3G connectivity in a community tells you very little about its impact. More important is how useful a particular technology is to a particular person’s life. And we’re just not in a place where we can predict that for everybody.
In other words: When it comes to prosperity under technology, access is not the finish line, but the starting point.
And not everybody who can get on the track, it turns out, wants to race. UW professor Ricardo Gomez is set to present a new paper on what he calls “pushback,” the growing tendency of some with plenty of access to technology to resist or reduce their own access. Gomez expected to find that people who disconnect or who prefer a flip phone to a smartphone do it mostly out of frustration with how a device works or its cost. Instead, he found people do it for emotional reasons. The biggest? “Dissatisfaction,” a sense that using all that tech all that time didn’t feel all that good.
Next up, what I’ll call the digital divide of exchange. Today’s tech is empowering, but nosy. This is the split between people comfortable trading in streams of their personal information and people who aren’t. I can think of one close relative who sees pictures on Facebook of our son but treads lightly on the site, never posting, commenting or “liking” anything that lights up a digital trail she doesn’t want to leave.
I thought a lot about this divide after reading “The Age of Context,” a book I wrote about here recently that argues that the tech world we’re headed toward will empower us only if it knows us. Your interests, search history, contacts, location — if you have a smartphone and a few popular apps, you’re already sharing these data bits in exchange for a selection of superpowers, like the ability to get directions to the nearest gas station or friends’ recommendations for a good night out.
Disclosures about the National Security Agency’s surveillance put the divide into a darker light, as does everything we hear about how much all those data bits say about us to entities that collect and analyze them. UW law professor Ryan Calo is among the researchers wondering — do companies’ outsized data advantage put the rest of us at a disadvantage?
The third digital divide that seems to matter, though it’s more abstract than the others, is identity. I used to joke that my right hand is 33 grams heavier because my iPhone is always in it. We’ve outsourced our brains to our devices, and they can be so effortless to use. Does that make our technology a part of us? The identity divide is between people who embrace a supercharged oneness with technology and people for whom it remains an external set of tools.
To a lot of people, this is a generational thing. The younger the person, the more comfortable she likely is with incorporating the technology she’s used all her life into her sense of self. There’s something to that, but I don’t think it tells the whole story. The longer we live with these more intimate technologies — smartphones, wearable devices, etc. — the more we’ll see recognize this as a more profound question.
A blockbuster board game created by a Seattle entrepreneur at Google says a lot about a fourth division, one I suspect is a lot more important than most people think. The game, called Robot Turtles, is designed for pre-schoolers, and it blew through its funding goal of $25,000 to raise $631,000 from almost 13,800 backers on Kickstarter. Dan Shapiro created the game to teach his two young kids the basics of programming, and the goal resonated with other young parents, including me.
The digital divide of creation is between the people who can make and manipulate the technologies at the foundation of our world and those who can only use them.
Here’s where I come down on this: I don’t want a world where everyone just has technology. I want a world where everyone can choose how best to use it and still live a good life — no matter where they fall on a digital divide.
Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.