Last month, the New York Times used the most valuable real estate in American journalism — Page One — to declare the emergence of a new digital divide. In a world of ubiquitous digital technology (nearly everyone — even kids — has at least a cell phone), two groups are emerging: those that use technology primarily as entertainment, as those that use limit their use of technology to their work or their creative endeavors. The NYT piece suggested this issue is particularly relevant to teens and those with lower socio-economic status.
The Times critique isn’t new. Here is how the one of the most successful technology entrepreneurs of the last quarter-century put it:
In terms of work habits/social skills, we’re creating a disaster. Not only can’t Johnny read, he can’t speak grammatically, either. Are we using technology as an excuse not to teach how to think and how to work with others?
The author? Michael Bloomberg, in his autobiography. The year he sounded the warning? 1997.
One of the undercurrents of both Bloomberg’s warning and the Times’ hand-wringing is that more technology is not automatically better. More hours in front of a computer screen doesn’t mean that we’re absorbing more information or interacting more with our peers. For many, technology is a means only for isolated entertainment. For all of the talk about multi-player online games, those “social” environments don’t do much to support or advance neighborhood associations or charitable groups.
But the second, and more intriguing, implication is that the innovators of the next generation will be those who are willing and able to spend the most time unplugged. Those of us in communication are unlikely to stop chasing those with big digital footprints, but it appears that those who are really changing the world may have taken out their earbuds and stepped away from the monitor. Understanding those individuals, then, will be an additional — and increasingly important — component of any future effort to create dialogue.
Fortunately, there are some excellent roadmaps for how to find those people making waves in the real world, and how to start conversations with them. At the risk of gushing over the work of a colleague (Spike Jones) Brains on Fire is an excellent starting place.
This is not to say that online communication and advocacy is not the dominant mode of communication now, or that its influence will not grow. But for years, we have trumpeted the growing number of those with access to digital tools as a rising tide. It’s almost standard practice for business presentations on the future of our industry to include a slide on cell phone penetration or broadband use, with the implication being that these new users would be welcome and active participants in the virtual marketplace of ideas. The NYT suggests that’s not the case, and understanding where, why and how users turn on, tune in and drop out (millennium style) will be one of the central challenges for communicators over the next decade.