Where is the Digital Divide? The Tsunami Uncovered It.

A few years ago there was a lot of talk about about the “Digital Divide.” It was predicated on the belief that those with the money to afford computers would develop skills and knowledge that would put them far ahead of those who couldn’t afford the technology.

Today the divide is not as wide as
anticipated. Affordability is relative. The real issue is access, not cost.
Children whose families can’t afford to buy computers, for example, are able to
access them at public schools, local churches and public libraries. As a
result, access is relatively easy
today.

But there is a digital
divide, after all. Those born into the digital age are wired differently than
those born before digital technologies were developed (laptops, cellphones,
PDAs, X-Box, digital cameras, camcorders). The digital generation uses these
devices as if they are part of the natural environment, as natural as water and
air. Check out the number of people plugged into outlets in airport corridors
or Starbucks recharging cellphones, laptops and iPods. This is a wired
generation.

In my opinion, the
stories about the tsunami (and the remarkable response to it through online
giving) mark the maturing of the Internet and will be remembered as a turning
point in the culture. They also shed light on the digital
divide.

The capabilities of many
humanitarian agencies were tested at peak times last week. While most websites
kept pace, telephone calls to agencies overloaded human operators. No wonder,
one survey reported by CNN indicates almost half the U.S. adult population has
contributed to relief efforts. At this writing, it is estimated that individual
donors worldwide have matched contributions by the world’s governments. In the
U.S. it’s estimated that giving has exceeded $337 million in the past 10 days!
(Washington
Post
)
That is astonishing to me.

As the
Post article reveals, it’s not without problems. In fact, because of new
circumstances a lot of re-thinking will happen in the religious and non-profit
community. This is a new day.

This
response was fueled by digital media–images from the scene–and accessibility
to online donation sites. It was virtually (no pun intended) beyond the control
of anyone. Even the President of the United States lost control of his message
at one point when the perception developed that his initial response was stingy.
President Bush had to go back to the public and explain that more money would be
allocated.

Once individuals
decided to give, they gave. This unprecedented response is possible because
people have access to the web and millions are familiar with online financial
transactions. American Public Media’s Marketplace reports U.S. consumers
spent $23 billion online this holiday season, up 25% over last year. That’s
also astonishing because it represents confidence in the security of online
transactions despite almost daily warnings about identity theft online and on
paper. That trust was not nearly as great in past
years.

To the wired generation this
isn’t news.

On the other hand, many
mass membership organizations, including many religious denominations, formed
before the digital era are not yet equipped to serve their members through
digital media. They’re just now entering the twenty-first century and the
transition is not easy. I heard one conversation in which a frustrated
accounting person complained that the online contributions were so heavy they
are overloading staff receipting them. It was much easier after 9/11, this
individual stated, when donors wrote
checks.

Easier for whom? For the
organization, of course, but not for the donor. And it is only easier for the
organization because it is familiar with this older posting method. It lacks
the technology, software and trained staff to manage online donations but these
actually save time and money in the
long-term.

This is not an unusual
dilemma, however. The digital age has catapulted over some organizations.
Those established in the last century live in cultures shaped by different needs
and technologies, and they operate on a different timeline. The crisis they
face is coming to terms with the ramped-up expectations and empowerment of
constituents who are becoming re-formed by the tools of the digital age. And if
they can’t change, they will disappear into the digital divide.

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