While nobody needed a computer or a mobile phone to get around just two decades ago, we have progressed into the digital age, where technology borders every aspect of our lives. However, the world is at a point where we are on the verge of creating a divide between the literate and the illiterate – both in the literal and digital sense.
What is Digital Illiteracy?
Literacy usually involves reading and writing skills, but digital literacy is a much broader concept. Some would define digital literacy as the ability to navigate the digital world through the use of websites or applications, while others would say it is the ability to read, discern and understand content on the Internet. In this article, we discuss digital literacy as the ability to operate and use devices such as computers, smartphones, automated kiosks and gadgets. As such, those who are digitally illiterate are people that do not know how to use these technological devices.
The world is moving into the age of automation, especially in first world countries. For instance, bank tellers have been progressively replaced by internet banking, while at popular food chains such as McDonald’s, we see fewer staff and more automated ordering kiosks. Amid the coronavirus outbreak, governments in some countries have been making use of mobile applications to control the volume of crowds in any location at a given time.
It is definitely much more efficient to automate these processes because it generally makes queues go faster, is cheaper than hiring more staff, and creates fewer opportunities for incidents, complaints or lack of quality control. After a while, human-computer interaction becomes commonplace. Many who grew up in the digital age can adapt easily to the intuitive user interfaces, and automation achieves its purpose of making life more convenient for everyone. Overall, automating customer-to-business interaction is more efficient – except when the digitally illiterate come into the picture.
Scale of Digital Illiteracy
We may be familiar with those times when someone holds up the queue because they do not understand how to use a digital interface. It may be frustrating to those of us who do know our way around technology, but it is even more of a bother to the digitally illiterate, who are faced with these problems every day when living in first world cities.
Usually, those who are illiterate in the conventional sense are also digitally illiterate, as they are unable to read in the first place and thus unable to understand how to operate technology without it being explained to them. In developed nations, the illiterate and digitally illiterate populations are largely comprised of the older generations, who tend to be unfamiliar with technology and find it difficult to keep up with the rapid development of new interfaces.
Digital illiteracy is more often a problem in first world countries that have incorporated extensive use of technology into people’s everyday lives. The percentage of digitally illiterate people living in developed cities is not small either, considering the world’s aging population. For example, in France alone, 13 million people are digitally illiterate – forming 28 percent of the population above the age of 18. Of this number, 2.5 million are also illiterate in the conventional sense.
Consequences of Digital Illiteracy
Unfortunately, digital illiteracy poses a problem for this marginalized population around the world, with many first world countries favoring technology and discontinuing support for more old-fashioned, manual methods.
Digitally illiterate people tend to face difficulties in carrying out their daily tasks. With the advent of self-ordering and self-paying machines, people now purchase their transportation tickets, pay their bills, buy their groceries and even order at dining places via a digital interface. Digital illiteracy implies the inability to perform any of these tasks, or at least great difficulty when it comes to them. However, more conventional methods are usually unavailable. For instance, some public transportation systems have made the purchase of transportation credit machine-only, forcing digitally illiterate people to figure out how to operate the self-paying kiosks. Even if staff are available to help, a digitally illiterate person holds up everyone else when they require assistance.
In addition, digitally illiterate people often face problems in finding and retaining a job – 62 percent of digitally illiterate people are retired. With the scale tipped in favor of younger, more digitally inclined people, those who are digitally illiterate are more likely to find themselves unemployed after failing to keep up with technology in their field of work. This is because it can be more difficult for them to understand how to work with automated systems or even operate them, making it more efficient for the company to simply find someone more capable than to spend time and resources teaching the digitally illiterate. Some digitally illiterate people are unable to apply for a job in the first place, considering how many companies now review applications digitally, or are at least more likely to respond to applications sent via email than physical post. Most of the time, these prejudices are not founded in malice, but are done unintentionally simply because it is cheaper, more convenient, or more efficient.
These people know that they are digitally illiterate, and some may be ashamed of it, leading to a poorer quality of life than they should have. It can be frustrating for digitally illiterate people to constantly have to ask for help and find themselves left behind in the digital world. They tend not to leave their comfort zones because they do not have the knowledge to navigate to places they wish to go, especially if they are also illiterate. Furthermore, many of these older people do not want to be a burden to anyone, so they may be less inclined to ask for help.
Solving Digital Illiteracy
While developed countries could always regress to manual methods, it would make little sense for them to do so just for the benefit of a quarter of the population, and definitely would not benefit the country in its economic progress. As such, it is highly probable that technology is here to stay, with the only way ahead to educate the digitally illiterate on how they can use technology to their advantage.
Making the move to automation saves companies and governments large amounts of money. If these parties could put a fraction of that money to use in making life easier for the digitally illiterate, we can then include this marginalized population in our society’s progress. For one, some funds could be invested in providing education for the digitally illiterate, guiding them on how to use mobile devices or information kiosks. Individual companies can also work on developing a more user-friendly system, such as integrating voice recognition software into their software to make it more accessible to the digitally illiterate. Companies could simply even delegate one or two personnel to be on standby alongside the machines, in case any customer needs help with operating them.
Author: Kelly Felder