Back in 1997, my wife Sue & I took our daughter Kate, a precocious 8 year old, to the General Assembly in Syracuse. We started a family tradition and since then, we’ve attended every General Assembly except for Long Beach in 2000 and Denver in 2003. We added brother Charlie in 2001 and he’s happily joined the tradition, looking forward at each Assembly to seeing his “rainbow friends.”
It was at these General Assemblies that Kate developed a real passion for social justice, beginning at her first GA when she helped raise money for a women’s seminary in Costa Rica. A 2011 college graduate, Kate has spent the last year working with AmeriCorps, recently signing up for an additional year. During this time, she’s been working primarily with young adults in helping them with skills for job searches and interviews. Through that work, Kate has become aware of a rapidly growing division among people today, one many of us are not aware of – “the digital divide.” You can read more about this in the following article – it’s an eye-opener!
The Rev. Mitch Trigger
An Unstoppable Force
Perhaps you’ve noticed recently that wherever you seem to go there are strange squares filled with black and white boxes. Maybe you’ve noticed them on the package of pancake mix you picked up from the grocery store or perhaps there is even one outside of an apartment building nearby advertising their available rooms. These squares are called QR codes and many are citing them as the new wave in technological accessibility. By taking out a smart phone, iPad, or music playing device with the proper application installed you can photograph the code and be rerouted to a website with additional information and special offers. The interplay of wireless devices and web content in such a way is just one of the many examples of our society’s increasing integration of technology. As a result we have all heard about the endless possibilities for communication and marketing that technology can provide. What many have not heard about, however, is the ways in which this technological dependency is furthering the gaps and barriers that many Americans face today. The use of technology in the media, marketing, and in social networking has become so vast that in turn it is reflecting onto our use of digital tools in community resources, government supports, and employment opportunities. In much the same way that we must encourage literacy in written language, our society will face large challenges towards equality and inclusion if we do not make digital literacy education a central goal.
A Paperless Society
Just as the text you are reading now has been shared digitally, many companies including government agencies, are opting to provide most if not all of their information through the internet. This choice to go “paperless”, whether it is to support the environment or cut costs, is not without negative effects. Without a solid sense of basic computer skills a person cannot access social security, pension, or Medicare information as all questions related to these resources are now routed to government-sponsored websites. Additionally the majority of educational testing has moved to a computerized form. Though the ACT and SAT are still available in paper form, the computerized test is offered at a more frequent rate and the GRE exam used for graduate level students will be solely available online starting in 2014. Yet access to resources and education are not the only paperless efforts. Over 80% of Fortune 500 companies, including many companies that hire for entry level positions such as Walmart and Target, offer online applications exclusively, up from 27% in 2000 and 53% in 2003 (Taleo Research, 2009).
So why should we be concerned? We hear every day about the increasing affordability of computers and the ever-growing rise of social networking users. Yet, though The Pew Internet and American Life Project reported in 2011 that 72% have Americans have access to and make regular use of the internet, several important demographics fall short of this number. Only 65% of Latinos and 66% of African Americans went online as compared to 77% of Caucasians. Of Latinos who speak Spanish only 47% use the internet. Compared to 95% of those ages 18-29, only 42% of Americans over 65 are online. Only 54% of Americans with disabilities use the internet regularly. Meanwhile, 63% of Americans earning less than $30,000 a year, compared to 85% of those earning $30,000-$50,000 and 98% of those making more than $75,000, access the internet. Additionally a staggering 42% of adults who have not graduated from high school use the internet compared to 91% of college graduates.
It is easy to see that those who are already face significant barriers are dealing with the additional struggles of a world that is requiring them to “Log On”, “Sign Up”, and “Check In”. Perhaps even more alarmingly, the Pew Center shows that internet accessibility is in fact decreasing as many families make the difficult choice of cutting spending on what is deemed to be a luxury item. While the world around us growing more and more tied to technology those who have been left behind for other reasons are continuing to experience a widening gap known as “the digital divide”.
Across the nation groups are taking action to promote awareness of this hidden inequality through several methods. The first way in which to bridge this gap is simply to supply access to technology for those who are unable to afford it. Many libraries and community centers have established open labs or Community Technology Centers (CTCs) so that technology is without cost. Several of these locations further their accessibility by offering adaptive computer software and hardware such as ZoomText, a program which allows a user with a visual impairment to enlarge the images and text on a computer screen or alter colors and contrast to improve readability. Other organizations such as PCs for People take donations of desktop and laptop computers, refurbish them, and offer them along with printers and additional accessories to those who need them most on a sliding scale of zero to fifty dollars.
In addition to providing accessible technology, providing the guidance and education on how to use this technology is of the utmost importance. For many new immigrants a computer is not only a new tool to be used, but perhaps a new concept altogether. But they are not alone. Many life-long citizens are also new to computer use whether it is due to a lack of accessible technology, previously working in a technology-free career field, or a multitude of other barriers. From how to use a mouse to writing e-mails and documents, technology offers yet another language for these people to learn. The Community Technology Empowerment Project in Minneapolis and St. Paul currently places roughly 30 educators across the metro area to provide guided assistance and lessons in digital literacy. Many of those who serve with the program specialize in working with those who are new to technology and cover a vast array of basic computer skills. Others work with people who may have a familiarity with technology but are not aware of how to use digital tools professionally. Many young adults, for instance, are familiar with Facebook, Instant Messaging, and other social features but have very little experience in Word Processing or using e-mails to converse with employers. It is through these educators that thousands each year learn how to better use computers for their own advancement.
As with any commodity in our society, computers and digital technology are distinctly tied to elements of privilege. For those who have access to technology doors are opened, opportunities arise, and several of the rights being afforded to them may be attained. In reading this you are likely steps ahead of many in our country, but this is not a reason to turn off or tune out to your own use of digital media. It is how those of us with access to computers and technology use that privilege that will define the size of the digital divide. Use your technology access to read an article about digital media policy or other issues pertaining to computer usage and forward them to others through e-mail. Share an interesting link with others through a social media platform such as Facebook or Twitter. Sign an online petition to support digital literacy and accessibility. Join an online community and engage in dialogue. Donate your computer the next time you upgrade. Encourage those around you to familiarize themselves with our changing technology and share that knowledge with others. Through improving your own awareness of the digital divide and in turn considering how to better your own media use you have taken the first step towards ending yet another inequality in our society. So the next time you log on to Google that recipe or map out directions, take a minute to assess what you use your technology for and how it may better serve others.
Kate Trigger, Presbyterian Voices for Justice