Digital Divide – is it experience or age?

What motivates us to adopt a new technology? Why do some people avoid, resist, or complain about innovation while others revel in it? Is our motivation to adopt a technology a function of our age or our experience? Can these barriers be overcome?

The holidays are approaching. As they do, the latest promotion sits on the horizon, ready to fill our stocking and land under our tree. Taking a quick look on the hottest items at Amazon at this moment (November 21), you will find the Kindle Fire, cameras, hard drives, video consoles, computer monitors, computers, phones, AppleTVs and on and on. Granted some of these devices are driven by the previous adoption of some other technology. Others represent particular interest or niche.

Much of the research and speculation on what drives consumers understandably comes from venture capitalists and marketing wonks. In an effort to answer the adoption question, venture capitalist Fred Wilson speculates that adoption is driven by the delivery of an experience that consumers have never had before COUPLED WITH a version that is simple and easy to use. While this argument is plausible, it fails to address the particular balance of familiarity, ease of use and novelty. Advertisers do their best  to convince us that their product provides a novel experience; “New – Improved!”. At the same time, they claim that this novel experience is simple and easy. I’m not saying that these two cannot be balance. I would maintain that it rare. More often people are confounded with the novelty. I understand why advertisers do their best to promote their product as novel and easy to use. I simply don’t often see adopters who express that satisfaction.

Novelty (compelling innovation) and ease of use is in the eyes of the beholder (prospective or actual adopter). While the product itself sets the bar, the reality of the experience is in the mind and hands of the person making the choice. Most of us have watched a child or adolescent manipulate a phone or computer. This phenomena is so pervasive that the term “digital divide” has been coined to explain the demographics of adoption. The theory is that there is a line in the sand of age that places us on the side of adopter or luddite. Sounds pretty permanent doesn’t it.

Another explanation, and one I feel has more merit is, “It is not the age of the user but the user’s experience and that predicts acceptance or adoption of a device.”  Joseph F. Coughlin, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab, makes this case in a July 27, 2013 post. My personal and professional experience supports this perspective. Children, adolescents, and adults display a very wide array of skill in adoption and in adapting as technology changes. I have met adults who panic when Google changes the look their interface (location of buttons, menus and shortcuts) and adults who consume the latest innovation with a passion. I believe that the answer to adoption / motivation / technology question lies with this spectrum of adults.

I am motivated to understand how I can bridge this experience gap. As a trainer and consultant, working with the over 45 crowd, This understanding will help me help them. My intuition tells me that the more I understand a persons background and experience with various forms of tools – digital and otherwise – the more effective I will be in helping them move along. As a social worker I used to conduct “social surveys” in order to individualize my counseling and support. Perhaps we need to develop a “digital social survey” or more generically a “vocational history survey”. This may help to identify aptitudes that lend support to effective adoption.