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The New Digital Divide

A few years ago the so called ‘digital divide’ became a cause celebre for a little while. The basic premise was that lower income people have less access to technology and the Internet than higher income people and that this was ‘widening the gap between rich and poor’. They were half right–the gap between rich and poor is widening but this phenomenon has less to do with Internet access and more to do with big picture economic trends. The primary reason that the ‘gap’ between rich and poor is getting bigger is that the ‘middle class’ is going away. Giving lower income people the tools and knowledge to move up the socioeconomic ladder is a noble goal but unfortunately won’t be achieved by trying to apply 20th century solutions to a situation caused by 21st century economic changes.

There is a bigger and more inexcusable ‘new digital divide’ in our country and money isn’t the issue. It’s likely a byproduct of the media’s incessant message of technophobia combined with garden variety metathesiophobia (‘fear of change’) but it has the potential of creating as much economic strife as the ‘digital divide’ 1.0. There are too many small business owners who are putting their heads in the sand and hoping that technology and the changes it brings about will just go away. A recent Inc. Magazine article revealed that 55% of small businesses have no web presence. It’s not much of an overstatement to suggest that this is like a business not having a telephone in the 1970’s. The article interviewed several small business owners who didn’t have a website and found each had their own unique excuses. One small sausage maker admitted that ‘he didn’t want to grow’ but added that ‘customers expect one’. The other business owners had less convincing justifications than wanting *not* to grow–one said that he’s just “been too busy” and that he hasn’t “come up with a plan with what I want to do.”

LIVING ON INTERNET TIME:

The aforementioned gentleman is likely a victim of the media’s pattern of skepticism about new technologies. Do a Google search on some new development in the computer or Internet industry and notice how it is covered by the mainstream media. Any new tech phenomenon is initially met with skepticism followed by contempt. The Google Glass backlash is a case in point–the mainstream media was quick to brand it useless and silly before the product even hit the market. Even more ridiculous are the politicians that have attempted to ban and regulate its use before they even understand what that use is.

At some point the new tech development will either gain traction or go away and the media will stop talking about it and repeat the process with the next big thing. Remember how a few years ago there was this disdain over Bluetooth cellphone headsets? Now many states (Nevada, for example) require their use to talk on the phone in a moving vehicle and they’ve become ‘accepted’. The collateral damage of this type of coverage is that people outside of the tech geek ecosystem aren’t informed about developing trends and their practical application which leads to disturbing results like 55% of small business owners not having websites.

In the early days of the Internet it wasn’t as big of a problem for a number of reasons and this gave the end user more time to assimilate and react to new technologies. The landscape has changed dramatically as has the speed of adoption for new technologies. It’s easy to get left ‘behind the curve’ by inaction and lack of information and all of a sudden you’re an analog player in a digital world. The Internet and the world it spawned is no longer a ‘fad’ and it is essential for businesses of every size to understand that the tools of technology aren’t optional but essential to their survival.

More Than Half of Small Businesses Don’t Have Websites (Inc. Magazine)

UPDATE 6/12/14: Good editorial on the Wired Magazine website addresses the collateral damage of oversimplifying the ‘digital divide’ as being strictly a function of broadband access:

Holding Back High Speed For The Poor’s Sake Just Hurts Everyone (Wired)

About James Murphy

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