I needed to have some work done on my car’s air-conditioning system recently. In trying to locate a place to have it done, my husband went online and came up with a name, phone number, and address – and nothing else. “I just don’t get how a business can operate without a website these days,” he said.
Many of us don’t get that – because we’re the ones that are connected. We use computers and tech devices for work, communication, research, and fun. We’re living our lives online, and so are most of the people we know, so we tend to take it for granted and assume that the whole world is doing it too.
But they’re not. There are still jobs that don’t require computer access, and businesses that can still reach a customer base without an online presence. There are still people who have never been on the World Wide Web, let alone Web 2.0.
People who read CNET are by definition digitally connected, and for us, the privilege of our wired existence is naturally accompanied by a kind of blindness to the barriers of living without computer access. The problem is, if we develop social systems that assume online access, we may be unintentionally leaving other people behind. Filing a government form, applying for a driver’s license, or sending in a resume electronically are only expedient conveniences if you have computer access, equipment and skills.
Through her work as director of Digital Sisters, Shireen Mitchell sees the everyday challenges of living on the excluded side of the digital divide. Mitchell reminds us that there can be a hidden downside to digital efficiency. She says, “The cost to save money by closing offices and putting applications or forms online only serve a smaller portion of the population. It actually has an significant increase on the burden of poverty, unemployment and crime on our society.”
Mitchell shared these specific examples with me:
A gentleman working at Home Depot had been a trade person, working at plumbing, carpentry and other jobs for home improvement. His 10-year-old son had to fill out the online application because he had never used a computer before. He was very knowledgeable about home repair, but would not have gotten that job if it wasn’t for a 10-year-old. He doesn’t have to use that skill to assist any of Home Depot’s customers.
One woman came to Digital Sisters asking to get assistance in filling out an online application to work at Marriott. She didn’t know how to access the Internet or use a computer. Digital Sisters assisted her but even the application wasn’t really simple. When asked if she would like to take additional classes, she said that as a housekeeper she didn’t need it, and she will be wasting her time in class when she needs to take care of her family financially and could work extra hours.
- There are several other companies that present the challenge of online applications including CVS Pharmacy and Giant Food. In collaboration with one of the collaboratives in DC, Digital Sisters set up mobile laptops and helped people apply for jobs at Giant.
It’s easy to forget that what we take for granted can be strange or intimidating to someone with different life experience. There are still communities where computer access is rare, and schools that don’t have the equipment or expertise they need to prepare students for the eventual – and probably inevitable – time when computer literacy will be the norm, a component of functional literacy right along with the original “three R’s.”
If one works from the premise that everyone’s “connected” these days, it may lead to certain expectations. In response to a story of a New Jersey high-school teacher who is assigning homework to his students’ parents, one blogger suggests that the teacher may be making certain assumptions about them (via BlogHer):