Tech

Digital divide: When technology is exclusive

The conversation about the digital divide is usually always approached in numerical terms. Such a percentage of people do not have a smartphone, this other percentage is that of people who do not have an Internet connection and this third numerical value is that of people who do not know how to handle this or that operating system with ease. And it is understandable, of course, it is necessary to know the volume of people affected by a certain circumstance to be able to adequately weigh it and, in this way, propose the necessary measures and resources to adequately address it.

The problem, however, is that by reducing the conversation to numbers, for many people the problem becomes dehumanized. What is 37.2% of the adult population? Who are the two out of five citizens affected by a problem? Numbers, just numbers that, as a general rule, we mentally project like the slice of a pie chart. Like when we hear that the extension of something is 73 football fields, or that the distance between the Earth and the Sun is 149.7 million kilometers. How many soccer fields could be filled with people suffering from the digital divide? It may be necessary to establish that metric.

Numbers detract from the human dimension of problems, so that every so often we need to tweet and threads like the one posted yesterday by María Lázaro, messages in which, suddenly, the generic definition of the digital divide becomes a concrete problem that affects a particular person, in this case María’s mother, a woman whose personal circumstances prevent her use certain technological solutions normally, and with which the staff of his health center showed more or less the same empathy as the iceberg with the hull of the Titanic.

In the first instance, it may seem that the response received to a totally understandable request responds only to an unfortunate moment on the part of the person who made the comment about the walls, but in reality it is a much bigger problem, since it brings back to the front the lack of awareness about the digital divide as a factor of exclusion of our elders, and how a technology that normally pretends to be an enabler can sometimes become a barrier.

Those of us who are lucky enough to have the knowledge and skills necessary to function with ease in the technological field are more fortunate than we think. We welcome the advances in digital transformation with open arms because of how comfortable this new model is, and we are becoming more digital every day, as Nicholas Negroponte already stated in the early 90’s. Curiously, at that time Negroponte already warned about the potential risk of the digital divide.

Those of us with these skills are, on many occasions, those responsible for helping people around us to solve the problems that arise on a day-to-day basis when they have to use a technological solution that is adapted to their particular circumstances. The problem is that this is just a patch, not the solution, the digital divide continues to exist, only that from time to time we mitigate its effects on the people we love. Because the other alternative is the one we can see in one of the reply tweets to the original thread:

An answer, the one received by Ronronia’s mother, in which we can see that the person who gives it conceives the existence of the digital divide but treats it as if it were something normal, when in reality it is not at all. Common yes, normal no. Ronronia had to resolve the management by her mother, María’s had to endure that insolence that, however, got a response from her husband, one of those that, if you see her in a movie or on a TV series, you have to suppress the urge to stand up and clap:

For the rest, if you review the answers, you will find many other cases of digital divide, of processes in which technological solutions have not been designed taking into account the needs of all. And that the procedures for offering alternatives to those who need them do not seem defined either. We can also find some deniers of the digital divide, people who think that anyone can do anything at any time with the right motivation. I will spare myself commenting on what I think of the worldview of these people.

The worldview that worries me, the one that really worries me, is that of those responsible for the implementation of this type of platforms. Digital transformation is driving great improvements in many aspects of our lives, but accessibility must be a fundamental part of it.

Digital divide, public administration and essential services

Although in the same text it is stated that it does not have a standardized definition, I quite like the way it is defined by the Spanish Red Cross:

The concept of the digital divide does not have a single, universally accepted definition. The digital divide refers to the inequality in access, use or impact of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) between social groups. These groups are usually determined based on economic, geographical, gender, age or cultural criteria.

From this definition we could infer that there is no digital divide, but an indeterminate number of them. And this is partially true, since problems for affected groups vary according to their nature. However, the result of these circumstances is always the same: the impossibility of accessing services that, in many cases, do not offer an adapted and accessible alternative. In other words, these people are being excluded from those services.

Personally, I can understand that a digital business or the provider of a leisure service through the Internet has not taken the necessary steps to adapt and improve their levels of accessibility. It seems to me a mistake, that of course, but in the end it is comparable to public establishments, for example bars, which have decided to adapt so that people with disabilities can access them, compared to those who do not consider it necessary and choose not to.

The problem is when the digital divide occurs in essential services, public or private. When a person like Maria’s mother encounters sarcasm when she asks for a printed certificate, or when Ronronia’s mother is supposed to go begging for help at a pharmacy to make an appointment for the third dose, or when mine has to spend more than a month, dizzy, to try to manage (at the moment still without success) to manage your registration as a client in an electricity company … is that we have a very serious problem.

Public administrations at all levels have the obligation to offer universal accessibility of their services to citizens. And in this sense, in that of the digital divide that affects our elders, they must combat it with all the means at their disposal:

  • To offer training and qualification.
  • Always opt for tailored designs and accessible.
  • Provide alternative media.

It would be cynical to deny the complexity of solving the problem of the digital divide, but that cannot be an excuse. And in the same way that these public administrations must solve this problem, a regulatory framework should also be established so that users of essential services, whether offered by public entities or private companies, also guarantee full access to them. Either digitally, whenever possible, but also by other means when digital is not accessible.

We cannot and must not leave our elders behind, because nothing of what we are would have been possible without them. And yes, taking the steps for them is the short-term answer that we can give. However, while Nati has to accompany Paloma to the bank to do business at the ATM, while María and Ronronia’s mothers do not get the answers they should, while my mother needs help to print, scan and forward documents to send them a thousand times by email, and thus thousands and thousands of cases … as long as this continues to occur, something will still be wrong.

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