The digital revolution's lingering literacy problem

If so many of the 2.7 billion people already online still have trouble with basic computer concepts, how will the next 2.5 billion fare?
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

A new digital divide is opening up. Not the one we usually hear about, where the rich can afford the fancy new digital tools and toys and the poor cannot, but one between the digitally literate and the digitally illiterate. We'll see this divide in developing nations, sure, but we'll also see it right here in rich Western nations, too — and it'll hit hardest in the small and SOHO businesses that are so important to our economy.

The mobile-cloud-analytics revolution currently grabbing headlines in the tech media is as big a business revolution as connecting to the internet was in the 1990s, and as big as having personal computers at all in the 1980s. But while "the enterprise" is at full steam ahead, it seems to me that many small businesses, which typically don't have dedicated technical staff, are still struggling at least a revolution behind.

It's not that these businesses don't want to play in the shiny, shiny future. It's that they don't even know how to frame the questions they want to ask — or don't even know that there are questions to be asked at all — and nobody seems interested in helping them.

The technically literate people like us, those who build systems for others, often forget that normal people don't necessarily have the same built-in curiosity and problem-solving instincts that we do. They don't care how or why something works, they just want to get their job done — or just get on with their life — but, like all of us, they're embarrassed when they have to admit that they don't know something that others think "should" be "obvious".

I first started thinking about this some time last decade, when I was flushing out the last few Windows 2000 machines from a client's offices and replacing them with slick new boxes running Windows XP Service Pack 2. The general manager was eager to have everyone on efficient new technology — but even when every other staff member had been upgraded, he still resisted. Eventually, he was overruled by the owner's representative, and I logged him in to his brand new desktop.

"Oh, hang on," I said, "It hasn't set your home page in the browser. What were you using before?"

"No, it's OK," he replied, "I'll find my way around. You've got other things to do."

My reassurances that it'd only take a moment came to nothing. I left him to it. Only later did I realise why he'd been reluctant.

He didn't know what "home page" meant.

Or "browser".

As a middle-aged man in charge of the business, he wouldn't have wanted to admit that weakness. He'd learned what computer skills he did have by rote learning. A new operating system changed where things were and what they looked like, sometimes even what they were called, and he had no idea where to start. His random trial-and-error exploration took place behind closed doors.

I was reminded of this story the other day when discussing an end user's ransomware problem with Michael McKinnon, security advisor with AVG Technologies AU. Was there anything newsworthy in this story of encrypted files and a criminal's demand for money? Or was it the same-old same-old?

Well, it was nothing really new. "There are currently dozens of infections that people can get online that we assist with removing all the time," McKinnon told me in an email — but there was more.

"It has been a year since the Australian Federal Police variant ransomware infections started, and we are still dealing with them for users who still fail to understand the importance of what we consider to be really basic stuff — patch management, keeping software up to date, and in some cases running legit software in the first place," he wrote.

"It is these particular users and their similarities that I find intriguing, and it isn't always as clear-cut as 'old people' or 'poor people'. They are disadvantaged users that keep getting swept under the carpet because they are of no news value, and some of them remain disadvantaged because the rest of us keep moving on, at a rapid pace, with internet banking, with new gadgets, assuming that there aren't any people left in the world who don't know how to cut and paste."

Yet, as McKinnon reminded me, the reality is that over the next five years, another 2.5 billion people will come online for the very first time, and they'll all need to be shown at some point what cut and paste is — as well as what "backups" are when you're not manoeuvring a truck, what "cc" means, how to avoid phishing and ransomware, and everything else.

And it's a very long way from there to setting up a collaborative workflow between colleagues, or making their business more competitive by using data analytics. And while you might argue that any sensible business would call in a specialist at that point, how can you engage a specialist when you don't even know the meaning of the words describing their job?

There was also a reminder recently that literacy is a far bigger problem than we sometimes realise. Even in well-educated Australia, 47 percent of adults are functionally illiterate — meaning that they can't read well enough to follow a recipe or understand instructions on medication.

How do you think they'd go trying to understand the risks of sharing work documents via their smartphone? Do you reckon they've really given informed consent to your app's privacy policy?

Yet, "illiterate" doesn't mean "incompetent". The Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Background Briefing revealed a businessman who'd faked his way through negotiations with oil princes, and an ambulance service volunteer who admitted, "I just write it down how I think and hope for the best."

How do you think they'd go when their verbal communication is replaced with a web page or a smartphone app?

Now the rise of pervasive mobile broadband will bring with it audio and video explainers, which may replace written documentation for many purposes. We might also see more audio and video interaction in the business setting.

But those of us who absorbed the digital revolution in real time over a decade or three can hardly expect others to catch up overnight.

The digital literacy problem will linger for at least a generation or two.

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