Sunday, June 13, 2010

the HAVES ignore the HAVE-NOTS and always will.

We enable tools that only we understand, but are potentially very dangerous in the hands of novices.

This is still a digital have and have-not situation. But the balance has shifted to include almost all educators and many others on the side of the haves, so we've become extremely conservative in our feelings toward the have-nots:
"Pull yourself up by your bootstraps," seems to be our collective message. "If I can learn to do this, so can you."

"We're going to put all your lives out on the web whether you understand how to protect yourself or not."
But many people seem to be functionally illiterate in the digital world. They can use devices, but rarely understand them. So when something goes wrong, they are lost.

[Real life interruption.]
HE has clicked on a mailto: link which opened Outlook, which is not configured to send mail from the library. Don't ask why it's installed and all ready to confuse patrons because I don't know all that stuff.

So HE has a Compose Mail window all filled out with a job application that he can't send:

HE: I need to send this job application, but my phone isn't working so I came to the library to use your computers.

I look at the message and I can see that it's a mess. So I copied it into Word and cleaned it up a little first, plus that gave me a backup in case something I did loses his original.

ME: Okay, you can log into your email here to send it.

HE types his full email address into the Address bar in the browser.

ME: No, where is your email account? Yahoo, Hotmail?

Eventually, he understands. But people use all sorts of technology without understanding what it's doing. Do you just press some button or shortcut that takes your right into your mail? Is your Bluetooth broadcasting to everyone? Is your router secure? No, "bieberfan" is NOT a good password. Do you even know what a password is?

See, this is my point. People are leaping straight into new technology with little or no understanding of what's going on. There is so much shit to divert our attention that we can overlook the most basic stuff. We get so caught up with the new that we forget to keep up with the old.

I expect that sometime in the next two years, people with ask to use one of our computers and then wonder why they can't download any apps to it. And I'll say, "This is computer, not a phone or an iAmaputz or whatever you've been using where you download each application as needed. This is an old school computer: you get what you get."

And what's going to be worse is if and when we abandon Windows for Open Source. That means that no computer in any library will (could) ever be the same. Each patron will need to know how to use our computers and the ones at the library in the next town and the one at Unemployment and the ones at Walmart...

I'm already trying to teach old school computer theory about how files are stored just in case the interface suffers some radical change in the next few years. But even then, I only know DOS-based file storage. Or maybe none of that matters so long as the front-end is user-friendly.

For years, we've had a two-party system, Microsoft and Apple. But when everyone has their own device, with wildly differing applications and operating systems, are we going to have a fragmented digital society?

In pre-WWII, most countries has two groups of individuals, US and THEM, or Everyone Who Was Born Here versus the Immigrants. But there were basically two groups because the core group, US, was so large. But now we have much smaller Tribal Systems, and the core group has been whittled away to almost nothing. You can say there is a new strength in that, but specialization can lead to inbreeding and even self-destruction when habitats suffer radical changes.

The point being, when we can no longer communicate via our devices, when we have no common language between our devices, how will we be able to communicate between ourselves?

DEBORAH AMOS of NPR calls me a "hand-wringer."

AMOS: There's always a list of losses...

Prof. SHIRKY: Yes.
AMOS: ...that accompanies any new technology. And there is a cottage industry of hand-wringers...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SHIRKY: More than a cottage industry. Let me tell you.

AMOS: And let me give them their voice - one is vanishing attention span, deep reading is gone, social polarization.
Literally, EVERYONE would like to dismantle the two party system. We want greater freedom to choose. But we are not artists, when we strike the block of stone, we may only get a floor littered with rocks and never reveal a figure of beauty. But we desire to do it anyway.

There is always some good in fragmentation, many individuals create environments where they create and excel, but it makes life difficult for those without basic skills. They get lost in a jungle of information and devices without an understanding for what is crap. These are the same people who shop during infomercials.

Alarmist me says that we are living in a digital apartheid where an extreme minority decides what should benefit the majority. People worry about large corporations running the world, but I would say that this is far worse. Because the internet has become much more important to our lives. And we have already decided that there is an acceptable level of collateral damage or civilian causalities we are willing to accept.

These people who can't use the internet are never going to survive in it. They won't get good jobs or live in better neighborhoods or receive proper medical care without an advanced (or even moderate) understanding for the basic tools of the internet. There is no internet GED; or if so, it's online, so they won't find it anyway. There is a basic literacy required to use the internet, but the basics will never get one anywhere.

The NPR story above asks, "What Happens When People Migrate To The Internet?" Well, that's the essential point: how will the indigenous peoples, US, deal with the immigrants, THEM? The digital natives are using the internet just fine. They say, "Use Google and Twitter and Facebook to search and meet and follow those whose ideas you value. Seek and you shall Find."

The digital natives are telling the digital immigrants that everything on the internet is A-OK.

Society had the idea that inexpensive books would educate us, but they only did for some. And then we had the idea that TV would enlighten us, but again, it did for just a few. And now, we have the internet to connect us, and from what I can see, we really don't want to connect EVERYONE, we just want to connect with others like US. We still have the same US and THEM prejudices, but we disguise them within the new technologies.

All these things are tools. But no one should just throw the tools on the floor and walk away.

And this again, do I have to say it, is the essential role of the public library. No, of the fucking public library. We fill that gap between mandated public education and expensive post-education and then on and on until you or I die. (Yes, I hope I die first, too.)

The problem with all the people who are using the internet successfully is that they have no time left for those who can't. The digital world isn't like giving your spare change to a guy on the corner. Training someone to be an educated digital citizen takes real time. You can't solve it with a slide show or a widget.

I can't even guess which skills we'll need for tomorrow's internet. But as long as someone pays for me to be a librarian, I'll continue to care and to teach it to whomever needs to know. And if no one wants to pay me, I won't teach it, but I'll still care.

(Alright, maybe I'll teach a little. For spare change.)