Digital Divide & COVID-19

Just this week our government suggested strongly that we all install an app to help trace our whereabouts. We are living in the weirdest of timelines where a single sick person could spread the virus to several people in their vicinity and not even know for a couple of weeks.

Right at the beginning, when we were simply thinking about leaving lockdown, there were already murmurings of privacy concerns.

Understandably so.

An app designed to track your whereabouts could be potentially used to track all types of things from your spending for advertising (the less nefarious end of the spectrum) through to where you go even if you want to remain hidden from someone who you are in danger from.

There have been better and more technical writers on this subject already. In fact, Andrew Chen wrote a very good stream-of-consciousness series of tweets specifically on the government’s app.

Let’s remember, of course, that the first major privacy breach we heard of didn’t involve technology at all. Rather, a Subway employee harassed a customer who had written their details on a piece of paper.

What I want to talk about is the push-back I’ve heard from the more technical community. I’ve seen some discontented geeks who don’t like that it isn’t an open source solution and that it is an app, accesible through the app store. They want something they can download and install themselves, or some have even asked if they can have the source code to compile it for themselves.

I’d like to use an anecdote to explain why the government did the right thing. First, let me use an analogy that might make more sense to the general public. If I’ve been hired to teach you Shakespeare, I’m going to assume you can read.

In fact, I’m going to take that analogy further.

If I am specifically hired to teach you about Much Ado About Nothing, I will come prepared to do so. I might have activities based on character studies (why is Benedict like that, what did Beatrice do to him?), or perhaps even a greater and more in-depth look as to why there are no maternal figures in almost all of Shakespeare… but I digress.

I will not come prepared to teach you your ABCs and how to form sentences. There are many many amazing people that are equipped to do that work, but often, the people you hire to take you through the intricacies of Shakespearean drama are not usually the same people that also teach literacy. (Of course, some amazing teacher is going to say that they do just that, and WOW I definitely tip my hat at you!)

With digital technologies, you are often expected to do just that.

Whether you are teaching seven-year-olds or seventy-year-olds or thirty-seven-year-olds, inevitably, you will get some people who struggle with basic commands through to those not listening to you because the content bores them to tears.

We often hear about the digital divide. It is framed as a problem of accessibility. People simply cannot afford the gear, and so they are left behind. It is so so much more than that. There are a large numbers of people who simply do not understand. If they don’t understand, they don’t see the need to access the device, and if they don’t have access to the devices, they never learn to use it, or see its importance in the world.

Like it or hate it, the Apple iPhone changed that dynamic. It showed the majority of the world that a computerised device is a good thing. Without realising it, people learnt to use their smartphones and download and install apps left, right and center. And now, once iPhone paved the way, the myriad of other devices came on its heels.

The average person still struggles to see the importance of digital technologies in our world. They fail to recognise that they are immersed in it already.

What I’d like to see from the discontented geeks is how they are helping to close this digital divide. What are some of the ways we can include everyone on our digital technologies journey?

The privilege of being technical is one that we can eliminate so easily. Digital Technologies has the potential to make everyone’s lives so much better… but only if they get it.