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.

Choosing Tools – Part 2

tool is a device that can be used to produce an item or achieve a task, but that is not consumed in the process. Informally the word is also used to describe a procedure or process with a specific purpose. Tools that are used in particular fields or activities may have different designations such as InstrumentUtensilImplementMachine, or Apparatus. ~ Wikipedia

“Technology is anything that was invented after you were born.” ~ Alan Kay

Technology is so pervasive in our lives that it is nearly impossible to grasp. If we consider all the innovations within the time of human development, we would have to include fire, the wheel, and even culture itself. With a scope so large it becomes very difficult to summarize. As we consider present-day techniques (technology adoption), it is helpful to acknowledge this long history. The fact that we use the tools we have inherited and use in unconscious ways (tools, technology and methods of mental organization) is a testament to our ability to adapt. We are capable (required really) of adopting new tools and methods, use them and forget what and how we learned them. We also forget that we “stand on the shoulders of the giants” who developed these tools. Habits are just that; routines that we have committed to physical and mental memory. Behavior that comes “naturally”.

While this blog is devoted to a broad range of tools, this series of posts explores the “cutting edge” of technology; which requires effort, makes us uncomfortable and requires choice. I am interested in the influence that technology has in our lives. Old and young, business-women and house-husband, teacher, developer, grandparent, and small child. Whether we like it or not, we are pushed and pulled by technology. I want to understand the influence that technology, digital tools, has on us. It makes sense that understanding the irritations and benefits of digital tools can help us choose more wisely. That is the crux of my exploration.

Most familiar to me are the basic digital tools that help us communicate with each other and organize our interests and work. I admit I have drank from the fire hose of technology at times. Sometimes this force feeding has been required within the responsibilities of my job. Sometimes I’ve chosen to explore some new tool and sometimes I’ve simply gotten carried away.

Digital technology and it’s adoption can be informed by other (non-electronic) technologies and applications. There are diverse aptitudes and inclinations for tools of various kinds. The woman who can’t begin to use a computer may have mechanical aptitude, woodworking aptitude, horticultural aptitude, social aptitude. Remembering the arc of innovation that preceded the “digital revolution” can help us understand common threads between the development of digital and traditional tools. Familiar, traditional trades and tools shaped the people who designed the first computers. Familiarity with hand tools, art and craft were an asset to developing skill with digital tools, giving the developers confidence and a model of practice. While there may be many examples of people for whom one aptitude fails to inform the other, skill in one field can inform another. For example, I know a number of musicians that are incredibly versatile with technology. When I help someone understand their computer I try to employ their other skills in the process.

I began this series of posts with a quote from Kevin Kelly:
“I began this book with a quest for a method, an understanding at least, that would guide my choices in the technium. I needed a bigger view to enable me to choose technologies that would bless me with greater benefits and fewer demands.”

Kelly’s sentiment spoke to me, in part because I rely so heavily on technology in my work. More generally it speaks to my desire to find balance for myself and the people I support. My mental and physical health improve when I am observant and disciplined in my practices. Given the amount of time I spend with my computer, phone, camera and other devices, managing them well will improve my quality of life. As a bonus, managing my personal use can help me help others lead a more sane digital life. I must admit that observing others is a great source of entertainment and curiosity. While it is sometimes comical to watch people discuss and use their digital tools, it can be painful, even tragic. In this light, my hope is that my exploration of this topic will help me bring understanding and happiness to people as they make digital choices.

A favorite topic of dinner party discussion these days is technology. The conversation begins when someone comments about their new phone and how it helps or confuses them. Someone else offers advice or explains the alternative they prefer. Before long there is an eruption of opinion, emotion and advice on what is best, what is coming, or why one person hates or resists the incessant marketing and development of new technology. While the conversation is somewhat dependent upon the demographic of the group (and the amount of alcohol consumed) any and all social occasions will suffice; a wedding, holiday gathering, reunion, or coffee klatches. Technology adoption is a hot topic of conversation.

While adults (45 and above) are especially uneasy with the innovation around them, everyone feels the push of innovation; propelling us out of our comfort zone and into change. Whether we accept the challenge to adopt the latest technology or not, everyone accepts the trends and the difference between adoption among children and adults. While there are claims of a “digital divide” that separates older luddites from dialed-in youth, I believe these claims are exaggerated. Granted, our children and grandchildren are more willing to pick up the new method or tool. But this willingness does not often translate to insight and knowledge of the tool or trend. The affinity and willingness to adopt is more related to need, desire, lifestyle and priorities. Regardless of age, those who are willing (comfortable)  to “play” and experiment advance with more ease.

Technology adoption is more reliant on personal necessity than aptitude. One’s depth of understanding and knowledge of the mechanics of a tool is pushed by a need and is supported by various levels of curiosity and persistence to resolve the need. For example, if my daughter only responds when I send her a text message, I will either learn to text or be frustrated and live in isolation from her. Many adults have learned to text for just this reason. We adapt at various rates as the necessity and/or curiosity hits us. There is no question that our sense of competence with a tool may loom large but I find that desire can help us overcome such bias. As with the texting example, the desire to be in contact/communication with my daughter can be a powerful influence for overcoming my lack of aptitude. If my social status or connection revolves around a system of communication and I don’t adopt that method, I will miss the opportunity of association. What began as a tool for teenagers to connect instantly has evolved into a method of touching our children.

As we continue to explore the imperative to adopt and methods for choosing tools, it is useful to remember the old adage that “necessity is the mother of invention”. It is also the mother of adoption. In this case, the necessity for digital tools is the result of a desire to be connected with one another. While it is important to recognize the unintended consequences that it may have (Turkel, “Alone Together”) belonging is a predominate motivation for technology adoption.

“What Technology Wants” … “Net Smart”

It is technology planning season here in the school district. This yearly process pushes us to question how and what we are accomplishing in our quest for the perfect learning tool. I’ve been watching and participating in this “event” for over 10 years now, so I have developed some theories. Recently I have been reading (listening) to Kevin Kelly’s book, “What Technology Wants” and Howard Rheingold’s new book, “Net Smart”.  These books, combined with my experience of how the humans around me choose has given me much food for thought. Writing always helps me formalize my theories and helps me make connections. So here goes…

“What Technology Wants” is a very, very, in-depth journey into the evolution of technology; it’s parallels to evolution in biology and human evolution and the ensuing creation of tools by homo sapiens. While the idea that technology could want something sounds whacky at first, Kelly provides a wealth of examples and some very compelling arguments for the comparison. Whether you buy the entire idea or not, in reading the book you will learn much about evolution in general, evolution of humans in particular, human invention and the gradual but steady evolution of our tools. Kelly brings many years of experience and thought to this subject. His description of the adoption of technology within the Amish community is especially thought provoking. What is instructive is not that they are 50 years behind in the adoption of technology but their process for choosing and rejecting. Key to this is their evaluation process which is continuous and includes the observation of the impact of a tool. They are willing to go back to the drawing board when something doesn’t fit with their culture.

While it doesn’t reach back into prehistory like Kelly’s book, “Net Smart” provides a history of the fast evolving tools of the Internet; a detailed view of the current state of communication, learning, online communities and collaboration. “Net Smart” is a user’s guide for anyone who would like to drive safely and effectively on the “information highway”.  As a seasoned participant in virtual communities (a term he coined) Howard steers us to the practical potentials and pitfalls of participation. While he avoids prescriptions, he provides a concise guide for focusing our attention, sorting fact from fiction, associating with people of like interests, and making a difference through community effort and knowledge building.

What do these books have to say about the adoption of technology for schools? Perhaps most important, they provide insight into where we have come from and where we can go. While, both Kelly and Rheingold are optimistic about the potentials of online learning and collaboration, both provide a realistic and sober assessment of the pitfalls and dangers. Both enjoin us to take responsibility and shape our personal and community practice with online tools.

The trends that Rheingold and Kelly describe have critical implications for schools who (for the time being) have an opportunity to influence the choices made by our children. As Mimi Ito points out in her “Digital Youth Research“, our youth are learning to use the web in informal ways, outside the walls of school. It is time that we adults move out of our comfort zone and face the emerging forms of communication. It is time to get informed and organize our learning with them. We have an opportunity to emphasize technological literacy over technological consumption. This isn’t about control but education and it starts with an informed pedagogy. It is reflected in the “stuff” (tools) that we choose for/with students.

Re-thinking technology adoption is not an event but a mindset. As such, I would like to find new and continuous ways to engage students, administrators, teachers and parents on this subject. A Net Smart curriculum could form as a touch stone for this conversation. It could inform both informal adoption (personal expenditures) and formal adoptions (with public money). As I convene with school principals this spring I hope to bring this spirit to the table. I realize that the industrial model of learning (fact and memory driven) is the elephant in the room. Such a model lends itself to a strict adoption of technology that looks like a textbook or a workbook. I would like to broaden our concept of learning to include constructivist models, as described by Ito, Kelly, Rheingold, Jenkins, Hargadon, Warlick and many others. I hope the conversations we have will generate avenues for learning that are generative, relevant and rich for our students.