The face of a tech native: looking across the digital divide

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Wed, 11/22/2006 - 03:03.


I've had many "chicken or egg" discussions about the digital divide with many people over many years. To some, the divide is about economics and access to technology and the Internet. To some, it is about environment and culture. To some it is about usability and functionality. I believe a person's position relative to the digital divide is influenced by all these factors, over time, influenced by personal capabilities, and I tend to view the challenges to be overcome to bridge the divide in about that order, starting with economics and access to technology and ending with functionality of technology, applications and information services. I'll point to my 19 month old tech native son Claes and some friends and family to explore this issue further. 

Because his parents have and use technology at home, Claes has associated technology with his parents and our environment and culture since he could see. As soon as he could walk, he came to explore these devices we seemed to give more attention to than to he. At first, he tried to destroy them - throwing cell phones across the room and pulling keys off laptops - but shortly he was able to understand them in his own ways, like making lights shine and hearing voices he knows on the phone and seeing pictures of himself and his bunny on the computer screen, and he became a primitive technology user himself.

These are environmental and cultural associations at home that shape his early development and define his state as a tech native. Before age two, as he is just constructing his language, he is already capable of using simple technologies and knows these are part of his life, and has personal preferences about them based upon his experiences with his parents and their use of technology, just as his preferences about reading, and creating and appreciating art, and nature are being formed.

My experience with my other children tells me, within a few more weeks Claes will be able to do simple tasks on the computer, without being destructive, and then play simple games and read there, and then start and navigate the computer himself, and by then he will be fighting us for computer time. All this happens for him without Internet access, any specific applications, or anything more than the most basic computer and applications.

So, because we have basic computer equipment at home, Claes has access to it, and because we have an environment and culture to use it ourselves, Claes associates it with mom and dad and is inclined to do like us. It doesn't matter if the equipment has any specific purpose, but it matters that it is in his presence and he associates it with his parents and how we live. Of course, this is only possible because we have the equipment at home, which is explicitly different from if we went to work, school, a computer center or the library to use computers outside his presence.

 Now, my 70-something parents, for all their intelligence and education, are not tech native, but they bought computer equipment and set up dial-up access because they live in a culture where they realize there is value on the Internet - after several years, they even recently upgraded to DSL access. Their capabilities are about equivalent to a 4-year-old tech native, and will probably not develop much beyond that. They can turn the machine on, load a web browser, and search for information and browse the web. They aren't even at the email stage... they are redefining their environment to changes in global culture, to the minimal extent it makes sense to them. With some mentoring they could do much more, but that is not of their desired culture or environment and they are satisfied at their current level. They value that others have greater tech skills, and even had me put their art collection in a Drupal content management system, and eventually want to learn to edit that, but they do not seek better usability or function than that.

Another interesting example is a fiftyish gallery owner in Toronto who has minimal computer experience but has largely run her gallery and business on paper and so did not have a computer at home or work. Recently, she realized that to grow her business she needed internet access, to receive and send emails and attachments, and a computer for preparing documents and building a database, and an enhanced web presence for doing business in the wide-world (which she outsourced to me). Having limited funds, she bought a cheap storefront computer with printer and monitor, for around $500, but could not afford Windows for another $300 and Office for another $400, so we went with Ubuntu and Open Office... she has free high speed internet via WiFi in her gallery building, so is fortunate in that respect, but we haven't even set that up yet - she's just playing with the box, for now. She is slowly getting into the tech swing of things, doing letters and invoices and building a contact database - she has no education with any of this, and no on-site support, so she is using help files and plodding her way along, learning for herself and getting the job done. Over the years, she will become quite proficient, learn more applications and grow her business and life through technology, without ever taking a class or stepping into a computer center, so to speak.

A last outside observation is of the sixtyish indigenous (Native) director of the same gallery who said, when we put the computer in the gallery, he could not touch a computer because he would short it out, and that he would never use it. Well, after less than a month, because he has observed other people using the computer and also helped think through computer challenges, and, most important, has had it sitting there for long hours when he had little else to do, he took the chance that he wouldn't short it out and poked around, and the last time I was there he was playing some of the games built into Ubuntu. I expect he will do much more with technology, as it is becoming part of his environment and the culture around him. 

From my personal experience, I'm a tech native wannabe. They installed a computer lab at my high school when I was going into 9th grade - old corporate mini-computers running Fortran - and I took some classes with that there and some programming in college, but none of that taught me anything about modern computers or computing. In 1981, though, I bought a 512K Mac, and took it home, and I just fooled around for a few hours here and there... started with making odd pictures with Paint. It came with lots of free software, including Works, and I bought Excel, and in a week I was building spreadsheets and creating databases and running mailmerges and running my and other companies... all before using the Internet. I have never taken a modern computing class, or been to a computer center, yet I have extracted incredible value from the dozen or so computers I have owned since, going from Mac to DOS to Windows to the final solution, open source. And, I've only just begun... I look forward to learning the real tech native language from my kids.

So, like for my 19 month old tech native son, for each of us the key to gaining value is having the technology available to us as part of our environment and culture. In most cases, technology needs are quite minimal, and can be met with very basic equipment. In some cases, there is a need for a specific function, like accessing the Internet or building databases, some of which requires data communications. Ultimately, all people should have access to the Internet, but that doesn't mean tech native life begins there. At the end user level, few of us need anything special - operating system and application-wise, using open source is generally the best solution. 

I believe bridging the digital divide begins like this... people need computers to use where, when and how they like, so it becomes part of their environment and culture. If they cannot afford a new computer, they should get a used computer at lowest cost or for free. Unless they want to spend the extra money, and know they need some special application, people are better off learning and using open source software. They should be allowed to learn at their own pace, and friends and family are the best mentors and tech support - as more freinds and family are tech literate, there is more synergistic tech support - the village approach. Even without access to the Internet, getting people started with such basic equipment and applications accomplishes much. Most important, this defines environments and cultures that are tech native and so nurturing of the new economy and the future generations who must lead and function in it.

While there are many efforts around the world to develop $100 computers, and Dell has them for $400, that does not change the current reality that there are 10,000s of people in NEO who do not have good credit, wealth and other wherewithal and cannot afford that, whereas, in the region, there are sufficient used computers to meet that need in closets collecting dust, filling landfills, and being sold as surplus, that could easily be recycled with open source software and given to people in need. This Christmas, 10,000s of people in NEO will get new computers to replace really excellent old ones - this year, 10,000s of excellent corporate computers will be replaced at area businesses and in government - it is clearly possible 100,000+ cast-off computers could be put in the hands of people in the region who are in need and would benefit from having them, and could put them to good use, even if to just try out the games there, and try writing a resume, and start developing their corner of the tech native environment and culture that is the new economy. That is a step in the right direction, which comes before many of these people may ever walk tall.

Next topic: Universal Access!