Digital Dividend?

February 1, 2009

…but soft, what light from yonder window breaks?       It’s just their new flat screen TV you silly bugger!

At the end of November I took part in the Taupo Cycle Challenge with an old Canadian flatmate from the mid-60s who came back to NZ especially for the event. When we flatted together, I had just started teaching history and Gord was doing postgraduate research in electrical engineering. The new computer at the University of Canterbury was in a designated, if not consecrated, building and only the elect were permitted entry. Gord was one such. To me, as an Arts graduate, what he did in that holy of holies with the stacks of punched cards he occasionally brought home was incomprehensible.

Before the end of that  tumultuous decade, the world saw its first personal computer. 40 years ago Stanford researcher Douglas Engelbart showed off his lab’s research project: the first personal computer complete with the first mouse and an interactive screen . The demonstration gave people in the audience the first inkling that computers could be workplace or household objects helping ordinary people, not just rocket scientists, solve problems and collaborate. They were  not just enormous number-crunching machines with a voracious appetite for punch cards.  Then, as Moore’s law  worked  itself out, first in our workplaces, then our homes, and finally on our persons,  the new technology multiplied in smaller and smaller packages.

Before the cycle event, Gord, and I communicated by e-mail and Skype, we found ourselves in the crowd afterwards by cellphone, and we exchanged photographs and video clips digitally at the speed of light minus the ISP factor. We may not be dinkum digital natives but looking back over four decades I, for one, am somewhat surprised by my relative digital dexterity, though because I’m not a text maniac, I am in no danger of developing a posthensile thumb.

I have another friend from the same era for whom for anything to do with computers and cellphones-and indeed anything digital besides his own hands-is the work of the technological devil.  Richard  is a very cultured man and reads a lot of books,  as indeed I  still do myself, though with a less literary bent.  He thinks that I’m frying my neurons by looking at words- let images- on the LCD screen.

Every year he joins the flock of greying Kiwis and flies off to Queensland for the worst of the winter. Apart from the very occasional use of a fax he is incommunicado. But after his return last spring, despite his long-standing techno-aversion, he announced in ringing tones that despite grave misgivings, he was considering buying a cellphone.  (He was facing the annual quandary about reinstating his landmine and was now mentally prepared to enter the first ranks of the  digiterati).  But despite some setting up help and a little coaching from his contemporaries and more importantly from two real digital natives, his nieces, the new device has been left very much to its own devices. It is all the things he feared: digital, but too small to manipulate digitally by a grown man with hands of his size; in need of regular recharging, unlike his old landline which he could plug in and forget. Worst of all, he is flummoxed by the sequence in which one must send a text message. Why, he wails, do you have to write the message first before entering the recipient’s number? Why could the sequence not be dial number first then communicate?

The phone sits unused in the corner. The digital divide remains unbridged. At least his neurons are safe.