A Different Digital Divide

The Internet and technology are different depending on where you are in America.

Everything is still there—You have the same Google, the same Facebook, the same AP, etc.—but there is a divide in how people use and interact with these tools. Think about how you use your phone: you might use it to help you do things—Get a ride, get some food, get some help, etc.—while others elsewhere use it as a Camera With Facebook & Email. The diets of our Internet and technology usage varies from city to city and state to state. Why are we then surprised that our nation is marred by misunderstandings as a product of uneven tech consumption? Perhaps a difference in literacy or desire is to blame but there is a sharp distinction.

This creates a divide, an unsurprising divide that supports the structure of American bubbles. These clear walls around us are becoming more and more visible, glossy even, as news reports swell and aggravate one side but not another. There are few conversations that straddle both sides because we assume that others are witnessing the same golden shower we are. But is that the case? Likely not because not everyone is consuming media and technology in the same way you are.

The proof is everywhere.

In 2013, a Census study on Internet connectivity reported how people use the service around the country. “Although the majority of U.S. households reported having Internet use in the home in 2011, notable differences in Internet use persisted between demographic groups,” the study found. “Internet use was most common in households with householders between 35 and 44 years of age (81.9 percent). Households with reference persons over the age of 55 reported consistently lower rates of Internet use (61.7 percent), a finding consistent with other years the Census Bureau has asked about Internet activity.” Beyond this, Appalachian and Southern states geographically and low income states reported lower usage, basing a disconnect in being disconnected.

Pew found in 2014 that the micro tech habits of young Americans existed in separate worlds too, specifically as it related to reading.

As a group, younger Americans under age 30 are more likely than those 30 and older to report reading a book (in any format) at least weekly (67% vs 58%). Adults ages 50-64 are least likely to report reading books on a weekly basis, followed by those ages 30-49 and those ages 65 and older.

Furthermore, entertainment consumption was split.

“Younger Americans are also more likely to socialize with friends or family daily (88% vs 75%),” the study found. “But are less likely to watch TV or movies (71% vs 80%) or read the news (55% vs 64%).” This was echoed by the impact of the Internet on younger Americans versus older Americans. “Most Americans feel that it’s easy to separate good information from bad online,” Pew found. “However, Americans under age 30 are actually more likely than older adults to say that there is a lot of useful, important information that is not available on the internet. They also believe that people without internet access are at a real disadvantage because of all the information they might be missing.”

Last April, Quartz hinted at this with a story on how the geography of America is preventing economic mobility. The story cited differences in tech usage as a reason for this. “Today, heartland Americans use tech and media to describe their experience,” the article concludes. “In anguished tweets, in furious Facebook posts, in GoFundMe campaigns begging for money to cover healthcare and funeral costs. They detail their struggle using the tools of the industries that exclude them from employment.”

Fast forwarding to today, in light of the election, fake news, and general media and tech consumption, these differences in use are being seen as liberal affects versus tools for all. Robert Leonard’s New York Times‘ essay “Why Rural America Voted For Trump” touched on this via the philosophical gulf between liberals and conservatives, with online and offline conversations underlining the story. “Some of what liberals worry about they see as pure nonsense,” Leonard explained. “When you are the son or daughter of a carpenter or mechanic and a housewife or secretary who lives paycheck to paycheck, who can’t afford to send kids to college, as many rural residents are, white privilege is meaningless and abstract.”

Another example: how people use Netflix. Farhad Manjoo’s “How Netflix Is Deepening The Our Cultural Echo Chambers” is deeply emblematic of this problem as the ubiquitous neo-channel reflects a contrasting view on being entertained. This appears in what certain Americans flock to: some turn to Stranger Things and Fuller House on Netflix while others turn to NCIS and The Big Bang Theory on CBS. By what is chosen to watch alone, you can infer so much about who these people are.

It goes deeper than this though: media no longer has a crossover appeal—and that’s a problem.

There will never again be a show like “One Day at a Time” or “All in the Family” — shows that derived their power not solely from their content, which might not hold up to today’s more high-minded affairs, but also from their ubiquity. There’s just about nothing as popular today as old sitcoms were; the only bits of shared culture that come close are periodic sporting events, viral videos, memes and occasional paroxysms of political outrage (see Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech and the aftermath).

Instead, we’re returning to the cultural era that predated radio and TV, an era in which entertainment was fragmented and bespoke, and satisfying a niche was a greater economic imperative than entertaining the mainstream.

And that is our problem: instead of using the tools at our disposal to understand each other, to connect, we’re digging into our own ways. The two groups have the same things at their disposal but divide each other by how they choose to use them.

The result? A new, different digital divide by people who are all connected, chattering around each other instead of too each other.

The Internet and technology may be consumed differently around the country (and globe) but perhaps that is exactly where the opportunity lies for understanding: by analyzing our interactions with information. Like a personal style, everyone has their own relationship with information—and that seems to be the accidental foundation for the ideological barriers we place between each other.

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