Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A New Digital Divide – Who wins, who loses?


    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.

4 comments:

  1. While I certainly agree that there are advantages to the technological advances we are experiencing, I think it is important to evaluate them before buying in.

    For example; you used value words such as "worse" and "left behind" which indicate that technological advances are good and not having them is negative.

    I'm not sure I agree that these sorts of changes are always good. I think we lose the personal connection and accountability when our social lives are more centered around social networking online than on those around us.

    I appreciate your emphasis on valuing those around us regardless of their technological savvy or lack thereof, but sometimes I wonder if perhaps those of us who are more "connected" might actually be the ones experiencing a disconnect.

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  2. My first librarian job was at a small college nestled in rural Indiana. While some students had access to all the latest gadgets, most lived in areas where there wasn't even broadband service.

    Our library lacked money (no surprise) and the powers-that-be believed that Generation Y demanded books and periodicals online, so our book budget was inadequate.

    I soon realized that many of the students, young or older, didn't have a clue on how to use a computer, let alone some of the fancier stuff they were trying to get them to use. While there were a few students who embraced the technology, many were wondering how they were going to pay for it.

    I felt bad for these students. all they wanted to do was check out some books for their research paper, but found there weren't many books to check out. Forget doing research at home through our databases or reading our e books. If they did have an internet connection, their computer would have crashed. I wasn't popular in the library world for pointing out this technological divide, but I felt it was my duty as a librarian to help everyone have access to the information they need.

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  3. Paying by phone isn't "next generation." Starbucks tested the system last year in selected markets, and announced yesterday that Pay-by-phone is being rolled out to all their nearly 8000 stores nationwide.

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  4. @Tricia, you are right, of course. What is needed is for all of us to take a look at where the train is going and make sure that it isn't going to hurt people.

    @Theresa, that's exactly what the demographics say about the people that live in our (my) area. Most people are not using the Internet because the cannot afford it or because they don't want to. As a church, this is important for the same reasons you gave. many church growth folk say you must do this and that on the Internet when, in reality, we're going to have to find ways to do both "new fangled" and "old fashioned" at the same time.

    @Anonymous, Perhaps we're not talking about the same thing or my description was lacking. My professional magazine (for electrical engineers) is normally pretty accurate. The device they were referring to has been, until now, too expensive to include in most cellular devices.

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