Digital divisions and the Tower of Babel

People often talk of the ‘digital divide’, a gulf that separates those with access to IT and social media from others who lack the means or the understanding to engage with it. Some go further and speak of ‘digital natives’, those who have grown up with new technology and assimilated its ways like a child learns a language. The ‘natives’ are contrasted with those, often older citizens, for whom using IT and social media really is another world. 

If only it were that simple.

A divide can be bridged; and if simply growing up in a more connected world is all that is needed for fluency then the passage of time would eventually solve the problem. In my experience, however, our predicament does not feel like looking at a simple canyon; it seems more like standing on a fracturing glacier with new crevasses opening up unpredictably all around.

We have a paradox in that the means of communication are proliferating but, in many ways, they make communication more rather than less difficult. I was first prompted to think seriously about this when helping organise volunteers responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. I sent out a simple questionnaire seeking information about their skills, availability, and preferences. I sent it in a Word document attached to an email and naively assumed that people would amend the document and return it the same way. A few did but most didn’t.

I had expected a few people to ring me instead of emailing. What I hadn’t expected was the extraordinary variety of other ways in which people attempted to respond. Some sent their answers in a text message to my phone, unhelpfully detached from the questions. Someone printed the form, filled in the answers by hand and sent me a photograph of it using WhatsApp. Others uploaded the document to the Cloud and sent me invitations to share it. I had a direct message on Twitter directing me to a hitherto unknown piece of cyberspace where they had lodged their form. There may be others who used apps inaccessible to me.

After cursing the perversity of people who didn’t do what I had imagined was the obvious thing, I began to see a pattern. Anyone aged 80 or over would ring, and always call my landline. My generation, the so-called ‘boomers’, were the ones most happy with email; a decade younger and they were mainly on WhatsApp.  My children’s generation seem most comfortable on Facebook – indeed when setting up networks in the early days of the pandemic we had three, largely age-stratified, parallel communication systems in a village of some 800 people. 

I have no idea how my grandchildren’s generation communicate. I have heard of TikTok and Instagram in the same way as my grandparents might have heard of Transylvania; somewhere that is remote and exotic but not somewhere to visit.

More recently I commissioned a young rat-catcher to inspect and report on a property. Since he was diffident about report writing, I agreed to draft it and send it to him for checking. Being a ‘boomer’, I did it as an email attachment. He replied promptly to the effect that it was broadly OK but he had made a few alterations.  “Where were the alterations?” I asked. “In the document” he replied. Assuming he had failed to attach a document, I asked him to try again. “OK, done” he said, but still nothing appeared. I tried yet again and this time he sent a link that directed me to Google Docs; but I lacked permission to access the file. I requested access. The permission however (it’s obvious in retrospect) was sent to my Gmail account, not to Outlook where the whole previous exchange had taken place, so I missed it; and eventually the poor chap resorted to retyping the whole report, including his changes, into the body of an email. It seems that each of us was trapped in a specific communications paradigm without being aware of its limits and alternatives.

Does any of this matter? I think it does. I worry about the effect on inter-generational solidarity at a time when more than ever we can see the differential effect of crises like climate change or the pandemic on different age cohorts. Older generations voting disproportionately to remove opportunities for young people through Brexit is a particularly egregious example. People often note that users of social media tend to follow those whose opinions they find congenial. If audiences are further segregated by choice of media platform, communication is even more limited.

It is an inescapable fact that technology evolves and some of us fail to keep up, but the division this causes is further compounded by the attempts of major IT companies to lock users into their own suite of products with subtle but confusing differences between them. The division between Mac and PC tribes is longstanding but the proliferation of new divisions does really seem like the story of the Tower of Babel.  According to the Bible, God created the many different human languages so that people could no longer co-operate and complete the tower which would have given mankind access to heaven. There is no divine purpose behind the current confusion but the result could be much the same.