This evening you may have updated your status on Facebook, sent messages on Twitter, played an online game and read emails. During the day your iPhone has allowed you to surf the Internet from virtually anywhere, receive various forms of messages on the go, and to receive telephone calls.
The other day I spoke with a woman who wanted to use our church website. She rarely used computers, did not have a lot of experience with email, and struggled with the concept of logging into the secure section of our church website. She was not much older than I am, perhaps in her 50’s, and she is already being left behind by technology. She is on the other side of the digital divide.
A few years ago her lack of familiarity with the Internet and with online services would not have been a major problem. Digital communication was another channel for delivery of news and services, but it had not replaced traditional forms of information exchange. But this is changing.
The changing economic climate is killing stores in our small town – at least four have gone in the last two weeks. For those of us with access to online stores, their loss is not a big deal. But for someone without regular access to the Internet, or who do not have the experience or confidence to shop online, the decline in bricks-and-mortar stores is a problem. Their options for purchasing goods, both luxuries and essential, are being reduced.
Just before New Year, I read an email from an organization I support, telling me that they would no longer be publishing a hard-copy newsletter. Instead, it would be distributed by email. This is great for them because it reduces their costs – there is no postage to pay, and the charge of designing a digital newsletter is no more than a printed one. But again, this woman would lose out if she supported the same organization because she does not have ready access to email. Even if she did, her preference would probably be to read the newsletter in hard copy form, not from a computer screen.
These are just two examples of where the digital divide is widening. Organizations are putting their energies into delivering more and more services online, because that is what the majority of people want, and because it is cheaper for them. But a result is that those without easy access to the Internet, or who are not comfortable with computers, are losing out.
Perhaps in fifty years time, or less, everyone will have equal access because they have been educated in the use of the Internet from childhood, and they will have taken it for granted. By then the digital divide might have narrowed again, but the next few years I can only see it getting wider and wider.