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.

A recent post by Amy Tiemann (Mojo Mom) on her CNET blog, (parent.thesis), talked about the “digital divide.” Some excerpts:

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):

1. They have internet access.

2. They read English at a high-school level.

3. They are comfortable using “new media” such as blogs.

4. They have sufficient time and energy left over after work and caring for the kids and/or elderly parents to sit down, read complex works, and compose a reply.

There are communities where all of these things would be true – and many others, including a significant number in my own culturally-diverse region of Southern California, where they’re not. And that’s what makes it a “digital divide.” Closing that gap will take time – and while we’re working on that, we need to remember that not everyone’s in the same technological place, and “connections” are made in other ways too, not just online.

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  1. Maybe it’s just because I live a stone’s throw from Microsoft HQ but I think computer literacy is already the norm.

    Certainly it is for many jobs and professions.

    Not knowing how to fill out a form online is just like not knowing how to dress for an interview. It’s a skill, one we have to learn.

    There are people who simply do not have access (even to a library). And then there are people who willfully refuse to learn this new skill (some of my relatives among them!).

  2. Working Girl – I think there are still places that haven’t caught up technologically yet, though – and, as you say, people who are choosing not to be caught up. But the time is coming when they won’t have the choice any more – and yes, then they’ll have to learn these skills for themselves, like it or not.

  3. It is critical the we establish a National policy on internet access. Affordable high speed access should be available to all Americans. The growth of our Country is at stake if we don’t address this soon.
    The Communications Workers Of America are working on this with their project, Speed Matters. Check out the website for more information –

  4. Working Girl and Florinda,
    the problem we have is that people do believe that everyone is connected unless they are choosing not to be and that not the case in all cities or communities. I have a lot of experience in this area, I have been working with technology literacy since 95-96 when the first NTIA report came out from the dept of commerce. Today the rate of people with no access at all is about 29 million and many can’t do anything about it unless the gov’t does something about it.

  5. Thanks to everyone for your input on this. Shireen, I’ve worked in organizations where a fair amount of the staff is “unconnected” (their work doesn’t require it, andd they’re not at desks or computers), and that probably applies to much of the population served by my current job as well, so I think the work you’re doing is really important. I’m not sure I agree that government policy is the answer, but there probably isn’t a private-sector way to address it broadly, so there you go.

    I really do think that those of us who are “connected” tend to tke it for granted and forget that not everyone is – thanks for reminding us about that.

  6. Thanks Florinda for your comments, I agree that the government involvement alone is not the answer, but I know that when people knew it was a problem it was because of the reports produced by the government. There were private and public sector involvement in addressing the issue but I do believe that the reports played an instrumental role in getting people to realize that not everyone is connected. This increases the understanding that it has become detrimental to those that are not connected.