Posts Tagged ‘society’

Considering Technology

February 23, 2018

So I’m going to rant a little today.

And no, it isn’t going to be about guns– at least not in this post.

I’m going to rant about the internet. Well, not the internet, per se; but some of the effects of the internet, some of the unintended consequences we’re facing, that I’d guess most people don’t even think about.

First of all, let me say that even though I was born before personal computers became a ‘thing’, I was a pretty early adopter. In about 1981 at a family reunion I became aware of the very first Apple computers, the ones you had to program yourself. A family member had bought one, another family member was working on a degree in computer science– this was my first exposure to the world of computers. My sisters got an Atari for Christmas soon after that and in my college courses they were beginning to appear. Unfortunately I didn’t have a knack for writing code nor the patience to acquire the knack; but once PC’s came along, I was all in. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have made it through seminary without a PC and today I have a laptop, a smartphone and a Kindle that I use all the time, all in different ways.

So when I started working at the library I was shocked to discover the number of people who don’t know how to use a personal computer. I was even more shocked when I discovered that many of those people are my age and younger, that it isn’t just elderly people who are computer illiterate (in fact, many people older than me do very well with computers. My parents are both internet savvy and my mom is even on Facebook.)

What’s even more shocking is the way our social structures have changed in response to internet use. You can’t apply for a job without going online. You can’t make an appointment to visit a friend in jail without going online. You can’t apply for social security benefits, unemployment benefits and many other public services without going online.

I know this because, as an Information Services Assistant at the library, it is a big part of my job to help people use our computers. And a big part of that job is helping people with those particular categories of computer use.

Now, you might think I’m making too big of a deal about this. After all, it’s easy, right? You just show someone how to log into the computer and they’re on their way, right?

If  only it were that easy.

First of all, to do anything on the internet you have to be able to read, and read pretty well. Then, you have to have an e-mail address. Yes, Gmail is free and easy to sign up for– that is, if you know what a username is and a password is and can create a username and password that you’ll remember. Because to apply for a job, or make an appointment to visit your friend in jail, or file unemployment or file for social security benefits on line– which you must do– you have to have an account.  An account requires an email address.

It’s the job thing that gets me. It’s no wonder people have trouble getting jobs.

A guy came in to my library yesterday and he said, “I’ve been hired at [local restaurant] and I need to fill in an application on line. But I don’t know anything about computers. They told me to come here and you’d help me.” Okay, that’s part of my job, and I’m more than happy to help.

But here’s the thing: many people who don’t know how to use computers lack that knowledge because they never had the privilege of learning how to use one. Perhaps they struggled in school and couldn’t get the hang of technology. I’ve noticed that many of the people who are computer illiterate have trouble reading. Perhaps their school didn’t have the funding to acquire computers, so they never really were exposed to them. And a lot of people who haven’t been exposed to technology are afraid of it.

But there comes the day that they are trying to get a job, maybe they got laid off from a job they’d had a long time, from back in the days when you could get a job by filling out a paper application; and as I said they don’t have a computer or an email address or a smart phone and they’ve been living their lives just fine without all that stuff. So they come to me, knowing nothing, needing to fill in this application right now, today!

If you have used computers all of your life you forget how complicated they seem when you first sit down at one.

The man I was helping yesterday was trying to get a job as a dishwasher– a dishwasher— and had been promised a job but had to fill out the online paperwork. And, God bless him, he had no idea. He had no email address or any idea of how to create one. He had no idea how to find the employer’s website, even though he had the address; he had no idea how to find the job application page, he had no idea how to go about this process that was far more complicated than it needed to be. He kept saying to me, “I have the job, I just need to do the application on line, they told me I have to do the application online and I can start work tomorrow.”

No shame in being a dishwasher. My kids have both worked as dishwashers. But it shows a lack of respect for a person’s humanity when a person applying to be a dishwasher must fill out an online application before they can begin working. It shows that the company’s convenience is more important than the human being they’re trying to hire.

This man needed someone to sit with him and walk him through this process and I could not do that. And I had other patrons come in and I tried to balance helping him and helping them but finally I think he got frustrated and left. I felt that I had failed him.

But even though perhaps I could have done more, it really isn’t me, or the library, who failed him and many others like him. It is a system that has a one-sized-fits-all way of doing things, making no allowances for those who can’t or don’t understand technology. It is a system in which the odds are stacked against you if you didn’t have the privilege of growing up around computers or being an early adopter when they came along. It’s a system in which human resources are limited in favor of technological resources.

Tech is great. I use it every day. I am lucky enough to be unafraid of technology, I am lucky enough to have the background that enables me to use my different tech items. But as we go ever forward into a more and more tech-dependent world, we must be intentional about not leaving people behind.