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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > June 2024

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Vol. 44 No. 5 — June 2024

The Latest Digital Divide: Systems Thinking vs. Misinformation and Malfeasance
by Jessamyn West

The main thing to think about is the gap. What is standing between people and their ability to do what they want online?
I’ve been working on digital divide issues in and around libraries since I got out of library school in the previous century. The phrase “digital divide” has referred to many different gaps between what people need and what they have in their technological ecosystem. That definition is shifting yet again.

Digital Divide Defined

Often, when people discuss the digital divide nowadays, it’s because they think they have a revolutionary new tool that has “solved” it or because they are looking for resources in some form to try to ameliorate it. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been working in the field while people have teased out what the problem is and then have tried to address it. These divides are all still with us to greater and lesser degrees, but new challengers have appeared and are formidable. I’m mainly looking at consumer technology use, so I’ve skipped the decades in which computing was mainly just an academic or specialized industry domain. Here are the divides I have seen.

Computer costs—Computers used to be more expensive than they are now, relative to other things. From 1997 until 2015, the Consumer Price Index for personal computers and peripheral equipment declined by 96% and has stayed low, with only a small uptick in computer costs in the COVID-19 era. Many people initially could not afford computers.

Internet access (and costs)—Dial-up and then broadband used to be even less affordable. As someone living in rural Vermont, I still see broadband as something not everyone can access despite aggressive work by rural broadband development projects. As more libraries got access to broadband and had free-to-use computers, these barriers were lessened but not entirely removed. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wound down its Affordable Connectivity Program earlier this year, but still has its Lifeline Program, which can help Americans somewhat with broadband costs.

Empowerment/confidence—Many people might have had the physical ability to interact with a computer or device but lacked the confidence to try things, to troubleshoot, or to ask for help (in person or online) in a useful way. Not being able to help yourself when you encounter obstacles puts you at a serious disadvantage in today’s technology environment.

These divides are all in addition to the baseline accessibility challenges that continue to permeate the online environment. Many businesses layer technology on top of whatever it is they already do. As a result, a basic task such as shopping or getting support for a problem may involve using multiple platforms, which may also involve many separate logins and wildly varying levels of user interfaces. For someone like me, who is both comfortable with technology and confident in my ability to navigate it, these types of things are inconveniences. For someone who is digitally divided, they can become complete barriers to access. The main thing to think about is the gap. What is standing between people and their ability to do what they want online? Who is responsible, and what can we all collectively do?

Today’s Digital Divide

The guiding document for much of my digital divide work is the short essay, “How to Help Someone Use a Computer” by Phil Agre ( He offers a lot of sensible, practical short snippets of information that provide guidance on how to work with people who are having technological challenges—challenges that you might’ve encountered so long ago that they may now be entirely unfamiliar to you. My favorite recent interaction with someone in the library was a discussion about how to save a document in Microsoft Word. I showed her the little icon of the floppy disk, itself representing a physical item that she had never really experienced. “What is that?” she asked. I explained floppy disks a little. She said, “Oh, I thought it was a little picture of a bank. You know, because you save stuff there.” Now I look at that picture, and all I see is a tiny bank. It makes sense!

Our interaction continued, with her trying to figure out how to save a document locally and not to Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud. This was significantly more difficult than I expected it would be. All of the user prompts nudge people toward branded cloud services. A person who is just trying to maneuver through an unfamiliar landscape, taking the path of least resistance, winds up in the cloud without really meaning to.

A section of Agre’s essay that specifically inspired this article is about blame: “Whenever they start to blame themselves, respond by blaming the computer. Then keep on blaming the computer, no matter how many times it takes, in a calm, authoritative tone of voice. If you need to show off, show off your ability to criticize bad design. When they get nailed by a false assumption about the computer’s behavior, tell them their assumption was reasonable. Tell *yourself* that it was reasonable.” I show off my ability to criticize bad design a lot. My experience, especially over the past several years, is that the three main things I help people do with technology are:

  1. Navigating and understanding the various cloud computing environments and how to sync between mobile and desktop environments
  2. Keeping from being scammed, upsold, or phished
  3. Figuring out what is good, solid information and what is hype, misinformation, or outright lies

This involves a lot of blaming the computer. But blaming the computer is only part of the battle. The battle also involves understanding the interconnected systems that make up a user’s technological environment—and then, finally, getting the user to where they want to be.

Why Is It Like That?

I do not, in my professional life, talk much about enshittification. While it’s a useful concept, the word tends to put people off and is confusing. Put simply, it’s the practice of online platforms starting out as good places for users. Then, they become worse places for individual users because the platform owners are serving their business customers. Eventually, those platforms become worse for even the business customers, as the owners try to extract as much value out of the platforms as they can before a perceived eventual platform death.

Examples given on the Wikipedia page are all ones we can nod along to. Amazon used to be a good place to buy books. Facebook used to be a good place to interact with friends. Twitter (now X) used to be a great place to talk with other librarians. We’ve all seen these platforms get less useful. The relentless grabbiness of many free or cheap services and the constant nudges toward low-cost (but certainly not free) subscriptions to cloud storage or fee-based apps are part of this enshittification process.

A friend remarked to me recently that they felt as if Yahoo mail’s increasingly complex fraud-prevention algorithms—which we’ve seen locking people entirely out of their Yahoo accounts more than they should—were all part of Yahoo upselling its premium support services. You like to think that a company wouldn’t make something intentionally complicated just so it could sell you a solution, but in this business environment, it might. And stuck in the middle of it are the users, the ones who aren’t sure which of their photos are going into the cloud, what is taking up the space in their email or on their phone, or which tech tools are private enough for their own personal comfort level.

The skills people were given—perhaps how to Google an error message or find an FAQ for an app—are increasingly getting manipulated not just by other people but by large language model-created spammy webpages that sound authoritative but are often nonsense. So, addressing this new digital divide is not just a digital literacy issue—although it is that too—but it also includes systems and network literacy. Because at the same time—as nearly 1 in 3 Americans still don’t have fast enough internet speeds to use Zoom effectively—we’re seeing deepfake AI-generated videos that are trying to affect the outcomes of political battles and potentially elections. And understanding that concept involves knowing at least a little about a lot of interconnected moving parts.

The red line at the bottom is the price of computers. The purple line at the top is the price of cable TV.

How Can We Help?

I’ve been shifting my approach over time as people’s needs have shifted. As much as confidence-building is important and skills-building is always going to have a place in technology instruction, I spend more of my time with patrons and students talking about the relationship between things as much as how to use any one thing. So, we discuss how email talks to a word-processing program, what is happening when someone texts, or how WhatsApp is different from iMessages on an iPhone or Google Messages for Android. If someone doesn’t entirely understand how their home internet or cellular service works, it confuses their understanding of why an app might work in their house but not at the library. The context is increasingly important. I used to make lists; now, I draw diagrams.

This systems thinking also gets complicated because more of the technological transactions our patrons have to deal with involve money: how to buy a thing, subscribe to a thing, purchase something within an app, figure out an online bill, or choose a cellphone plan. And while we usually don’t help people do their online shopping, if someone is trying to figure out an error message that tells them, “You’re out of space on this device. Buy more?” that’s in our wheelhouse. Librarianship has often been a profession that has stood apart, somewhat, from the nuts and bolts of modern-day capitalism. It’s not that we don’t participate in it but that we have somewhat tried to insulate our patrons from the brunt of it.

This more recent sense of the digital divide—a systems thinking divide, in which users’ lack of understanding of the interrelatedness of things is being weaponized against them—is what I work on the most. And so, my toolkit has expanded to include a little more talking and less typing. I try to help my patrons become informed consumers in the same way that the public library has always nominally existed to help people become informed voters. To do this, I’ll often explicate some combination of things, including but not limited to:

  • Context—What apps, services, or systems are involved, especially if some of them don’t get along with one another? (Apple, Google, and Microsoft, I am looking in your direction.)
  • Connectivity—How much is any one type of connection—whether it’s cellular, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth—affecting the outcomes users are getting?
  • Camouflage—What relationships are being hidden that may be getting in the way of the user being able to do what they want?

Librarianship has always been a very sincere profession, and it’s challenging for me to talk to people about viewing things through a lens of companies trying to mess with them. However, I find that once we do that—view the relationship between people and their devices as more like lion taming and less like living with a house cat—the more we can help optimize for the humans in the relationship and less for the endless demands of business and capital.

I used to say that I was good at using technology to solve problems. And I am. But I’ve also taken some wisdom from Adam Savage over in MythBusters-land and have shifted how I frame that same relationship when talking to patrons: “Let’s not look at this as a problem to be solved; more like a process to be managed.”
Jessamyn West Jessamyn West is a technology librarian who lives in Central Vermont and manages community for the Flickr Foundation.