Information Age: Bridging or widening the digital divide?

Being born in the late ’70s, I did not grow up with a ton of technology around me. I learned how to communicate with others (although being an introvert this was most painful), make friends, play outside, find happiness in simple things; none of which required a lot of technical expertise, but that absolutely required collaborating with neighborhood kids or friends at school. Unlike today, technology was not all-absorbing.

I see my kids growing up with a ton of technology around them, and I wonder if technology has changed everything for the better. It is easier than ever for them to find answers for most of their questions. Unlike me, they don’t need to go to a library and sit there for hours to find the right book for the right answer. Pretty much everything, every answer, is a touch of a button away. It makes me wonder sometimes if they are too reliant on technology and not applying themselves (or working hard) to learn. Then there are times when my kids find too many answers for the same question and become confused about what the ‘right answer’ is. How is it that with so much information available so easily, we still are not always sure of the right answers? In a way, having too much information available at our disposal may confuse us and deter us from availing ourselves of the benefits of technology.

The development of smartphones and increasing reliance on them to connect with friends has ensured that social applications are right at the heart of this digital revolution. The popularity and accessibility of social media have grown leaps and bounds as the availability of smartphones and improved internet connectivity across the globe increased, including more and more people in the conversation. People can stay connected around the clock and be aware of events occurring live in distant parts of the world. Apps like WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Facebook Messenger have increased options for folks to instant message, view pictures and stay connected. People these days are creating family events and memories as they travel or hit major personal or professional milestones. These digital apps help distant relatives feel included in these moments by sharing experiences, photographs, and videos. However, there are limitations to digital communication. The lack of context and the asymmetrical nature of much digital communication can leave people wondering if their message was received the way it was intended.

Technology has revolutionized travel. Folks are no longer excluded from the experiences that the world has to offer. Access to technology has enabled folks with all sorts of budgets and interests to identify their travel destinations and have the confidence to undertake these trips. In the past, if I didn’t have sufficient knowledge about a destination I was interested in, I would typically skip the trip. Not anymore. Apps like google maps in combination with smartphones have not only made old tools like maps or even GPS devices redundant, they have enabled and empowered reluctant people who may not be comfortable to venture out to take impromptu road trips. Integration of these apps on mobile platforms has enabled the end-to-end experience from suggesting, to planning, to actually executing a travel plan. Technology has enabled folks to venture outside their comfort zone by seeking out their interests in a particular destination.

Technology has enabled quality education to reach more areas of the world than ever before. Without traveling to college, students can get quality education from the convenience of their homes. Many top colleges in the world have put educational content online, enabling the far reaches of the world to benefit from them. Technology has enabled the creation of expansive pools of data like Wikipedia that people from across the world collaborate on to keep relevant and up-to-date. More folks are becoming “DIYers” by logging on to YouTube and viewing how-to videos. Ultimately, today’s digital society is becoming self-sustaining. The more we leverage and contribute to the online content, the more expansive and detailed it becomes.

The digital revolution has tremendously helped the field of healthcare as well. From electronic health records that enable continuity in care, to having the ability to connect remotely with your healthcare provider; these are all technologies that are enabling access to quality healthcare. Furthermore, folks are now able to have a better understanding of their healthcare needs and make better decisions on how best to help themselves. People are able to review, monitor and understand the risks associated with their health using a multitude of apps and technology made available either by insurance companies, healthcare providers or tools available “off the shelf.”

Digital society has helped connect remote parts of the world and serve parts of society who were previously marginalized. While digital society has eliminated boundaries in many areas, it has made it easier to create silos based on a category like (and not limited to) age, interests, beliefs, which may exclude folks who don’t fit in them. Ultimately, this leads to controlling the flow of information to some, thus excluding others.

Digital society also has stringent norms about what tools and technology you must have in order to participate. Many folks may be left out if they don’t have the right smartphone or don’t subscribe to apps or don’t feel like providing personal information as requested. Digital society has become a double-edged sword, on one hand, information is freely available and on the other hand, enough personal information may be available to create a comprehensive profile of an individual.[JC9] It feels like you have very minimal control over the personal information that you have out there. While stereotypes have existed in the past, nowadays, someone can easily judge you based on what you post on social media without really knowing you. For example, I may have liked a message on a forum with some political overtones and someone who sees that may jump to conclusions about my political views more generally without understanding the context or taking the time to have a real conversation with me. I may be included or excluded based on what people think about me without really knowing me.

Imagine the results when this information is compromised and leads to stolen identity. The threat of someone stealing your identity has kept many people on the sidelines. There is also a generational aspect to exclusion. While millennials may be the most trusting and willing to adopt digital tools to be part of this online society, other generations have a change management curve to conquer. They are trying to catch-up with tools that didn’t exist before and technology that was at one time considered impossible. Sometimes they make a choice to not adapt and stay out; hence, excluding them. Many people still want and desire to interact with others in person and not via video or digital personas—they also opt-out.

Overall, digital society has its merits and pitfalls. It is ultimately up to each individual to decide how much they want to be part of this society. They can be ‘all-in’, ‘partially accepting’ or can choose to ‘stay out’. I must say, that the last choice may not be an option after all. While you may not have consciously created a digital footprint yourself, there may be enough information on you available to piece together your digital footprint. Something as trivial as posting ‘hold mail’ on is creating a footprint of you! The question may not be whether you want to be part of digital society, rather how much you want to be a part of it.

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About Saloni Shah

Saloni Shah is currently enrolled at Saginaw Valley State University (SVSU) in Michigan, pursuing master’s in computer science & information systems (CSIS). She took a break from her professional career as a research lab technician to raise her family.

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