In August, I volunteered to be Media Director for a local non-profit. It’s been a lot of fun, and a lot of frustrating. I found myself–before I could even get started on typical Media Director stuff–educating the members on the basics of technology. I’ve never felt more like a Millennial than when I tried to explain the difference between a meme and a picture with words on it.
At the same time, I got distracted with learning how to hand spin wool and make my own lye. I’ve never felt more like a Millennial than when I texted my friend the instructions on how to make lye. “It’s easy!” I said. “Or we could just buy it…” she replied (#NotAMillennial).
I can’t decide if it’s a function of my personality, my generation, or my career, but I find myself straddling the “hyper-new tech” world and the “tech of the 18th c.” world. Survivalists have long taught electricity-independent homesteading skills while Hipsters have made traditional crafts cool again, thus the rise in classic skills. However, in order to be a functioning member of this society, you need at least a basic understanding of mobile phone, internet, and word processing skills. (Like more traditional forms of education, the more you learn, the better you get paid.) Besides that, technology continues to evolve and expand at exponential rates. It’s exciting to look ahead at what might be. Did you know they’re beginning to 3D print organs? Did you know they’re constructing the “Hyperloop” a super-fast pneumatic train track that can transport people, cars, and semis by air pressure that has basically no waste and no traffic jams? “Hmm…” I thought, “we’re adding new technology to the landscape, but the old tech isn’t disappearing. Except for 8-tracks. Vinyl stayed, but 8-tracks disappeared. Huh.”
This Thanksgiving, we went to visit my in laws and on the agenda–besides lots of yummy food and long, rowdy board games–was “show Mom how to use her new smart phone.” Her very first smart phone. She was dubious. Her son is an IT nerd, and she’s used to being lovingly lectured by him. I’m sure the whole idea seemed daunting. But when we got there, she’d already taught herself how to take pictures. “Hmm..” I thought, “maybe the Digital Divide is not as insurmountable as I thought”.
Later we went for a walk, and she expressed some concern over the pace of technology. “Don’t worry.” I assured her, “Technology is additive. Did you know people are making movies without CGI still? For the art of it. I mean, look at how good CGI is getting, and they still like non-CGI stuff*. Or look at radio now. It’s still around.”
But I was wrong. Technology is not additive. As Neil Postman wrote in the 90s, “Technology is ecological.” John D. Cook quotes from Postman’s book: “In the year 1500, fifty years after the printing press was invented, we do not have old Europe plus the printing press. We had a different Europe.” This is why we still have vinyl but not 8-tracks. Vinyl changed the world by storing music. It’s still valuable to audiophiles because it’s the only uncompressed way of storing music (which sounds better) while the only value that digitally-storing 8-tracks had was storing MORE information on one device than vinyl which was quickly overcome by cassettes, CDs, and MP3 players. Thus, 8-tracks have worse sound quality than vinyl and worse data storage capacity than MP3 players so they’re gone.
If technology is ecological, than the Digital Divide is a big problem. As Margaret Rouse writes:
The digital divide typically exists between those in cities and those in rural areas; between the educated and the uneducated; between socioeconomic groups; and, globally, between the more and less industrially developed nations. Even among populations with some access to technology, the digital divide can be evident in the form of lower-performance computers, lower-speed wireless connections, lower-priced connections such as dial-up, and limited access to subscription-based content.
Here is a graphic of internet users worldwide as a percentage of the country’s population in 2012. (**Citation)
Even in wealthy, heavily-connected America, the Digital Divide is a reality. Rouse writes, “A June 2013 U.S. White House broadband report, for example, showed that only 71% of American homes have adopted broadband, a figure lower than in other countries with comparable gross domestic product.”
If technology is ecological, than that means that places without good access to good tech are not evolving the same way that places with tech are. Who cares? Well…banks care, but–more importantly–social activists care. “Proponents for closing the digital divide include those who argue it would improve literacy, democracy, social mobility, economic equality and economic growth.” (Rouse). The Digital Divide makes being poor–already one of the most expensive things to be–harder. For instance, Kindle textbooks are cheaper than real ones. Finding jobs is easier with Monster.com rather than hitting the sidewalk. Getting help is easier with a mobile phone than running for it. Organizing revolutions is easier over Twitter than by word of mouth. Transportation is easier and cheaper with GPS (which could help your country make more money by delivering things faster).
So what does that mean for Emergencies Preparedness? Three things, at least:
- Helping to close the digital divide makes the world a better place in general.
- Making your country resilient (able to recover from disasters) means closing the Digital Divide.
- Both high-tech solutions (wiring money to a victim) and low-tech solutions (knowing how to purify your own water) will be needed for an Emergency.
Here’s a (partial?) list from Wikipedia of people who are helping close the digital divide. Maybe you’d like to help too.
- Groups devoted to digital divide issues
- Center for Digital Inclusion
- Close the Gap International VZW
- Digital Textbook a South Korean Project that intends to distribute tablet notebooks to elementary school students.
- United Nations Information and Communication Technologies Task Force
*The non-CGI movie is just something I heard once. The internet doesn’t seem to know what I’m talking about, so it probably never happened.
** “InternetPenetrationWorldMap” by Jeff Ogden (W163) – Own work, based on figures from the Wikipedia:List of countries by number of Internet users article in the English Wikipedia, which is in turn based on figures from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) for 2010 (updated to use figures for 2012 on 28 June 2013).
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