As an electrical engineer as well as a pastor, I still belong to my professional society and from them I still receive a monthly magazine that keeps me up to date on current happenings and trends in my field. This past month, one of the articles I was reading speculated on the coming of a new “digital divide” because of rising smartphone usage. According to this article, current trends indicate that by 2013, smartphones will represent 50% of the American market. Since, at present, 82% of all Americans (not 82% of adults, 82% of all Americans) currently have cell phones, I take this to mean that by 2013, 41% of us will have phones in our pockets that will allow us to do our banking and watch YouTube anyplace we feel like it.
Even worse, our cell phones are likely to see a new feature in the next generation or so. Technology has existed for a while that allows something as small as a credit card to act as a “key.” You may have seen these as “smart cards” where your credit card can be used to “tap-and-go.” Until recently, cost has kept this technology from becoming widespread but recent developments have dropped the cost so significantly that it is likely that we will soon see this technology added to our phones. The end result is that, once widely implemented, we won’t need to carry our wallets; we will be able to use our cell phone to “tap-and-go” at McDonald's instead. Shoot, once this is widely adopted, this same technology might be used so that our cell phones take the place of our car keys.
So why is this a problem?
What about everyone else? Our church has recently begun digging into demographic information about the people in our area to give us an idea of how we can better minister to their needs. These are the people in our community and the people that God has placed in our care. Folks around here are not well off. We live in the foothills of Appalachia. When I saw these articles about a “new digital divide” I got to thinking and I started digging through the demographic information of the group that makes up the large majority of our local population.
The results are frightening.
To give you a better idea of who I’m talking about, here are a couple of facts. Seventy-six percent of this group earns less than $50,000 per year and 38% less than $25,000. Two thirds of them live in homes valued at less than $100,000 and more than half in a home valued at less than $75,000. These are not wealthy people. Many are retired; most have a high school diploma or less. While more than half own a computer less than a third have an Internet connection and less than 7 percent have broadband.
While full of numbers and statistics, this begins to describe a group of people who are being left behind by much of our society and culture. While the experts predict that smartphone penetration will exceed 50% of the market in the next two years, it won’t here. Currently only 49% of this group even owns a cell phone, far less than the national average of 82%. Even worse, less than one person in twenty can send and receive text messages and less than one in ten has Internet access on their cell phone.
The development of technology and our culture are not going to slow down to let people like these catch up. Before you simply write off the less-well-to-do in Appalachia, you might also remember that many of our parents and grandparents fit this description as well. Nearly a third of these folk say that computers confuse them and they have no plans to learn how to use them.
So what happens when your cell phone is your car keys, your wallet, your road atlas, and all-around information portal? Worse, what happens to grandma and a whole lot of others people when they can’t? This isn’t simply a matter of training. We can't just offer class to help people catch up. These folk simply can’t afford to get on the train. What happens when technology and our culture leave them behind? From a ministry perspective, how do we minister to the people who are being left behind? I’m not sure, but we had better figure it out soon.
This train is already leaving and we don’t have much time.