The Digital Divide: A Technological Generation Gap

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Middle-aged and senior adults must keep up with modern technology if they want to keep up with the times.

“Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.”Alan Kay

In a “Dilbert” comic strip, the terms “Technological Singularity” and “the three laws” are used. How many scanners of the strip recognized these terms? More importantly, many readers over the age of 45 (other, hopefully, than regular readers of this writer) did not get anything about the strip at all?

For the record, Technological Singularity refers to the theory, put forth most notably by Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil, that there is a unification coming (by 2030) between humans and intelligent machinery that will usher in a “post-human” age of beings far more intelligent than we may presently conceive. The “three laws” refer to those postulated as governing rules for robot design by Isaac Asimov in his 1942 short story “Runaround.” These “laws” became not only the governing precepts of the science fiction of Asimov and others but also of computer scientists and other developers of real-world robotics. (To learn more about Asimov’s laws and other sci-fi-inspired tech, see Astounding Sci-Fi Ideas That Came True (and Some That Didn’t).)

The Three Laws are:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

I think that most readers of the New York Daily News, where Dilbert appears, would not “get” these references (this is not intended to be a slight on readers – I don’t think that many readers, particularly those over 45, of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal would get them either). I see this as an indication of what I think is an ongoing problem – the Digital Divide, which is the gap between those who understand technology and those who do not, has become generational.

Origin of the Digital Divide

In the early days of the personal computer/telecommunications revolution, most observers were awash with optimism. This new access to information would democratize so many things – individual investors could get information previously only available to large financial institutions; small law firms not in metropolitan areas with access to Lexus could now have access to case law only available to those with a big-firm law library or near a large law school, etc., etc.


We soon began to see, however, that the new technology was only opening the door for those who could afford it and we soon began to speak of the “Digital Divide,” the gulf between those with access to both the necessary technology and the information accessible with it and those who do not. The immediate concern was that those with the technology would acquire the necessary skills for the twenty-first century and those without would not, further widening the economic chasm between the lower-income strata and those above. This became even more of a concern when the wealthier private and public school systems began to acquire personal computer networks and internet connection while schools in poorer neighborhoods could not.

The federal government addressed the problem though the imposition of the Gore Tax, a $10 a month tax on phone bills, for the express purpose of “connecting every school and library to the internet.” Despite the attempts of some members of Congress to put censorship requirements on the deploying of the technology, the wiring of schools and libraries has worked very well and has generally provided internet access to all students in the country. While the poorer households tend not to have computers and internet access in the homes as do the wealthier classes, at least all students have the opportunity for some access.

A Generational Digital Divide

Yet there is still a Digital Divide, albeit of a different type. The current one, one that promises to continue throughout the future, is generational. Technology has an obsoleting impact on those without the proper skills and, with the speed at which the technology changes, it is very difficult – near impossible for some – to keep current. As the quote from Alan Kay above points out, things that we have to learn are difficult, while things we grow up with are just part of the environment – something we always knew.

I have a friend whose four-year-old grandson calls him regularly on FaceTime (the video conferencing system for iPads and other Apple products) and I have a friend, retired after years of teaching, who, although he has years of experience with computers, had a hard time understanding how the system worked. When personal computers were first spreading through businesses, my firm spent a lot of time teaching executives how to use the first spreadsheet, VisiCalc (one high-ranking executive had us give him private tutoring because he did not want to be embarrassed in front of younger underlings, fresh out of college, who arrived with computer skills). Now grammar school students do spreadsheets and word processing – such knowledge is no longer a “skill” in the business world; it is a “requirement.” (To learn more about VisiCalc and the impact it had, see How Spreadsheets Changed the World: A Short History of the PC Era.)

Similarly, in the early days of the world wide web, developers who acquired a modicum of knowledge made a lot of money developing what would today be considered very ugly web pages. Once again, grammar school students do much better ones.

Keep Up or Lose Out

Those who grow up with technology assimilate it into themselves; those who are older and must “learn it” often not only have a difficult time but do not see the relevance and “do not bother” until it is too late. We have seen a number of examples of this in recent years – many middle-aged folks ignore texting, convinced that it was an adolescent aberration – the same generation ignored Facebook and Twitter, often saying “I’m too busy working to waste my time with that;” by the time they realized that the world was passing them by, it was too late for some of them to acquire the tools to stay competitive (it’s interesting that many seniors got into Facebook in order to see pictures of grandchildren – many need a reason to push ahead with new technology while others “of a certain age” do not see a reason – as with Facebook). This is not a new phenomena – people locked in to the ways that they know and not open to change. Supposedly, when Alexander Graham Bell explained his telephone invention to Western Union, he was asked “why would anyone want to do that?” – the same question that folks who don’t text or tweet might ask today.

There will constantly be new tools – the cloud, big data, location analysis, etc. – and ones of which we have not yet heard. Those who do not embrace them may be ambushed by them and by a younger generation pushing them out the door.


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John F. McMullen

John F. McMullen lives with his wife, Barbara, in Jefferson Valley, New York, in a converted barn full of pets (dog, cats, and turtles) and books. He has been involved in technology for more than 40 years and has written more than 1,500 articles, columns and reviews about it for major publications. He is a professor at Purchase College and has previously taught at Monroe College, Marist College and the New School for Social Research. MucMullen has a wealth of experience in both technology and in writing for publication. He has worked as a programmer, analyst, manager and director of…