Friday, May 14, 2010

The Digital Divide in All its Glory

Here's my monthly column from the Home News Tribune:

Family car trips are very different than two decades ago, when our children were pre-teens. There are still plenty of lunches and snacks to prepare, and the frequent "Are we there yet?'' questions. However the "in-flight'' entertainment has really evolved. Back in the day, for the news, there was the car radio. For music, we had cassettes, and of course some quality time for family discussions.

In contrast, our recent family outing to the nearby Blue Mountain Ski Resort was filled with the latest gear. For directions to Blue two decades ago, we called their 800 number. This time, my son-in-law went to their website and downloaded the directions. He also checked traffic and was able to suggest alternate routes, since his Blackberry is GPS-enabled. Back in the day, I think the only people who were GPS-enabled were Navy Seals and employees of NASA.

We waited until we arrived at our destination to use a pay phone (remember those?) to check voice-mail messages. Nowadays everyone owns a cell phone. Halfway into the trip, my Bluetooth began beeping. It was my brother in Israel who joined three Singer brothers together for our weekly conference call. Years ago, I never would have imagined a three-way call on portable cellular devices connecting Orlando, Israel, and New Jersey. It's hard to miss the good old days when technology makes keeping in touch so much easier.

Lucky for me, one thing remained the same. With my daughters and my son-in-law on board, it was easy to get a legitimate family discussion going. I asked them about the digital divide; I wanted to understand it better and to have the input of my techno-savvy adult children. The responses were mainly directed at what the digital divide is not; it is not an income-related divide. "It's not about poor versus rich at all," stated my daughter, "because everyone has a cell phone these days." A home number will soon be a thing of the past. Anyone with a cell-phone can have internet and e-mail included, not to mention dozens of downloaded songs.

When we finally arrived at Blue Mountain, conditions were epic. We had found out about the conditions in advance but obviously not by calling the snow conditions hotline of yesteryear. My son-in-law's Blackberry displayed the entire ski report on Blue Mountain's website. He had also put out a "tweet'' to his Twitter followers with a few simple keystrokes and within an hour, heard reports about the ski conditions.

As we enjoyed the day, I began to realize the digital divide has a lot to do with age. Middle-agers (myself included), are a bit resistant to the latest technology. For young people, technology is a social imperative.

Regarding the haves and the have-nots, this is also about having an interest in the latest techno-fad, or having no interest. What if a person just wants to curl up with a good non-electric novel once in a while or what if they don't have enough time to keep up with the technology? It takes time to tweet and update your Facebook status. People who have jobs and families likely have less time for these activities.

During our last run of a superb day of skiing at Blue, my children filled one high-speed quad chair and I was assigned to the next random chair with three teenagers who were all friends. One asked me, "Sir, can you take a picture of us with my phone, so I can text it to Mom in the lodge and show her we're having a good time?'' I was happy to help. In the words of Bob Dylan, "The times they are a-changin.''

Be Counted columnist Dr. Alan Singer is a marriage therapist in Highland Park. Respond to this column via his website