Business  •  February 18, 2015

Bridging the Digital Divide—Education Isn’t the Solution

When people talk about “digital divide”, they are usually referring to the lack of access to technology, especially to the Internet, for the underprivileged. Although this problem still exists in the US, it is continually improving, and has become a lesser concern. The new digital divide in the US has to do with how we use information technologies. Even between two people who have access to the same technologies, a significant difference can be found in what they are able to do with them. To bridge this gap, we need to figure out what creates this gap.

The roles technologies play in our lives are rapidly expanding. Since we get paid for our productivity relative to others, if we do not keep up with the socially expected level of productivity in our personal lives, it has significant consequences in our professional lives also. Take for instance, something as trivial as grocery shopping. Services like FreshDirect make the process much more efficient. Not only you save time in traveling to a supermarket, the process of identifying what you need is also streamlined as they retain records of what you frequently purchase. If you are good at using such services, grocery shopping can be completed within ten minutes total. Without technology, this whole process can easily take over an hour.

Another good example is a website that reports the real-time locations of busses in New York City. If you know how to use it, you would not waste time waiting for a bus. Otherwise, you could be standing at the bus stop for half an hour.

If you have a smart-lock on your door, you would be able to let your delivery person into your home even when you are not home, which could save you time going to a pick-up location yourself.

These small differences can easily add up to be a significant difference overall. The disparity would be quite obvious if we were to compare an accountant who refuses to use a computer with the ordinary accountants today. The number of clients and jobs that he can manage would only be a small fraction of the market average today. He wouldn’t be able to make enough money to survive. Whether you want to use technologies or not is not up to you to decide. Digital divide is indeed a socio-economic problem.

Technology as Friction

Almost any tool of productivity we use was a piece of “technology” at some point in the human history. Knife, frying pan, match, pencil, light bulb, bicycle, telephone, etc., etc.. But we no longer think of them as a “technologies” because they have already become seamless extensions of ourselves. We use them almost unconsciously as if they are part of our own bodies. From this perspective, the word “technology” is referring to any tool of productivity we have not mastered. Once we master it, it ceases to be a “technology.” The word does not refer to any specific object; it refers to the friction or hurdle in mastering it.

If we are to agree on this definition, we can solve the problem in one of two ways: 1) teach people how to cope with the friction, or 2) remove / reduce the friction.

A typical way that we teach people how to use a piece of technology is to explain how it works. Engineers love understanding how things work. This understanding of the underlying mechanism is what allows them to learn new technologies quickly. Because of this, they assume that teaching people how things work is the best way to help them master their tools. In other words, in order to bridge the gap, they are training people to be more like engineers. But how about the other way around? Why not train engineers to be more like non-engineers?

Take iPhone for instance. iPhone was not originally designed for children but any parents with toddlers would immediately notice that they can use iPhones without training them. Functionally speaking, an iPhone is just another general-purpose computer; the only difference is the interface. Because the friction is so low, and because its user-interface design piggybacks on our innate understanding of the physical world, toddlers who don’t even know the word “technology” can use it.

In other words, we do not need to understand how things work in order to master them. After all, how many people truly understand how televisions work? If there is a way to remove the friction, education and training are not necessary.

Whose Fault Is It?

Some people are simply not interested in how things work, and only interested in what they can do with them. Understanding how everything works does not necessarily lead to higher productivity, as you could get caught up in the details and lose sight of the bigger picture. An interesting research conducted by Enrico Ferro, Natalie C. Helbig, and J. Ramon Gil-Garcia shows that the level of computer literacy does not correlate to employment. In fact, from “basic users” to “advanced users”, the unemployment rate slightly increased.

This makes intuitive sense to me. I’ve met many people whose passion is to custom-build the fastest computers possible. They frequently talk about different kinds of CPUs, cooling systems, drives, RAMs, etc., and brag about how fast their machines are, but when I ask them what they do with their super-computers, a typical answer I get is “run a benchmark app” to measure how fast they are. It is no surprise to me why the unemployment rate doesn’t change for “advanced users” despite all the talk about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) jobs.

The so-called “DIY” or Do-It-Yourself market is filled with people like this who do not take into account whether they are making productive use of their own time, because they love figuring out how things work for its own sake. If we were to look at the big picture, they are no more “intelligent” than those who don’t understand the mechanics, yet in our culture they are perceived as the smart ones. Because of this, it does not occur to non-engineers to blame the engineers for creating something that requires training. When we observe people who are struggling to use these technologies, we immediately assume that we need to train these users, not the engineers.

Solution

In order to bridge the digital divide, we need to change our cultural perception of “intelligence”. Because we perceive engineers to be the smart ones, we are not putting enough pressures on them to make smarter products that do not require training. Instead, almost by default, we pressure the users.

Educating and training those who lack “digital literacy” is sort of like trying to teach everyone how to use professional cameras. Photography used to be so technically complex that people had to be technically trained to be photographers. Today, technical “literacy” in photography is no longer necessary. As technologies mature, the need for education and training diminishes, or entirely disappears.

Driving a car still requires a significant amount of education and training, but it has gotten much easier with automatic transmission and power-steering. There is no point in requiring people to learn how to drive a stick-shift. In the future, cars will drive themselves, and we would no longer need to learn how to drive.

At the rate technologies are evolving today, the only function of “digital literacy” is to tide people over until the technologies mature. The temporary nature of such “literacy” raises a question: Can “digital literacy” be legitimately compared to literacy proper? The subjects we learn in elementary school, like language and math, eventually become part of our cognitive frameworks. They can be flexibly used to understand what we experience. They are tools for life. “Digital literacy” in contrast is a temporary coping mechanism like learning how to drive a stick-shift.

Before graphical user interface was introduced, computers required a high level of digital literacy. Now toddlers can use them given an interface like that of iPhones. So the interesting question is whether it is worthwhile to teach “digital literacy” if this “literacy” so quickly becomes worthless. Incidentally Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids use iPads. We don’t have an answer to this question, but what is worthwhile for sure is to remove as much friction as possible by designing better products and offering better services.