I have a new laptop, at least for the length of this trial. The team at Dell have loaned me an XPS and I have to say it’s flippin’ awesome. OK I don’t have to say that — it wouldn’t be much of a trial if I did — but it’s true.
In between trials of new machines I operate on a five year-old desktop or a six year-old laptop. Both are perfectly functional but limited. The laptop performs admirably for its age, thanks to a lightweight Linux OS, but unfortunately its frame is anything but lightweight: more luggable than portable. The desktop is very comfortable to use with its big screen and a posh mouse and keyboard (thanks to a never-ending trial from Logitech). But a lack of RAM means it becomes a little ponderous when running lots of Chrome windows or anything else taxing.
By contrast this new laptop has everything: slender metal frame, Core i7 processor, buckets of RAM, and a battery that lasts so long I’ve stopped bothering to carry the charger. Even if I use the laptop to charge my phone and other devices it seems to get me through days of work.
I can’t definitively say this is the best machine out there for the money — it’s not that sort of test. But its sheer capability has reminded me of something: the dramatic difference that remains between a ‘real’ computer and a tablet or smartphone. For me this is an increasingly important frontier in the digital divide.
Makers and Consumers
Because I’m using this machine as my main device for the period of the trial, I’ve had to install my regular software stack on it. I could automate this process and probably will in future, but it’s actually quite interesting to install things as and when the need arises. It makes you very aware of the software on which you’re most reliant. In the past this approach has also made me very aware of the (un)availability of an internet connection when you need one. But on my second trip over the Pennines in as many weeks, I find myself happily downloading hundreds of megabytes of software over Three’s 3 and 4G networks. There’s a reason I have an unlimited contract…
The software I have installed started with a browser or two: Chrome (for browsing, mail and apps) and Firefox (for web design and testing). Then a text editor (Bluefish) and version control (Git). Then an office suite or two — LibreOffice and MS Office. And finally the Arduino IDE for more development on my home automation system and robots. I’ll probably add GIMP and Inkscape at some point but I haven’t needed them yet.
Now, browsing I could do on a tablet. Email too. I’m pretty adept at typing on a screen and have a nice dinky Logitech (again) keyboard for my iPad Mini. But code? Version control? Spreadsheets? Document design? Presentations? None of these are things I would like to tackle on a tablet today. For these things a laptop or desktop is ideal. In fact, they are necessary.
Consumption not Creation
Tablets and smartphones today are tools of communication and consumption, not creation. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the interfaces. Ancient though it may be, the keyboard and mouse combination remains our best interface to most of the tools of digital creation.
The exceptions are audiovisual: tablets can competently capture audio, video and images, and using a stylus designers and artists can draw on them. But for most other tasks the touchscreen interface lacks fidelity: even if you can capture your words, manipulating the documents you’ve written is a massive PITA.
This is not just the fault of the screen and fat fingers: the user interface trades off capability for ease of use. This is the second reason that touchscreen devices are limited. The operating systems and apps that sit on them are designed to be incredibly intuitive and usable with a few touches and swipes. This is great, but it means they are usually simplified to some extent, leaving you without the power and control that you might be used to on a desktop or laptop. The power and control you need to be a true digital creator.
The Real Digital Divide
The digital divide is generally accepted to mean the gap between the connected and the unconnected. Those with and without access to the internet. Today in Britain 83% of households have some form of internet access, with the majority of those that don’t reporting that it is lack of need/desire that stops them, rather than a lack of finance or skills. A large proportion of those are over 75. In short, over the coming years the digital divide by this measure is likely to narrow significantly, leaving a hard core for whom skills, disability and cost are the issues. These are issues that can and should be tackled, since it is increasingly hard to navigate modern life without internet access. Not having access can put you at a significant disadvantage from a consumer perspective, as much as anything else: things bought online are often cheaper.
With my futurist’s hat on though, I am more concerned about a different digital divide. That between digital consumers and digital creators.
Putting a connected tablet or smartphone into someone’s hands and equipping them with some basic skills may enable them to participate in digital life. They can use eGovernment services, shop and ‘join the conversation’ on social media. But they can’t make an awful lot — at least not anything of business value. As I pointed out above, these devices are great for audiovisual media but YouTube and Instagram are awash with wannabe Spielbergs and Baileys. Only so many people can succeed in this field as Jamal Edwards has.
The digital divide we should be measuring is that between those with access to the skills and the technology to create new products and services, and those with the capability to consume them.
The Three Cs
This is a much harder measure. But I think it is possible. In discussions around the future of work and skills, I have come down to a simple ‘Three Cs’ of skills that are vital for participation in tomorrow’s increasingly digital economy. And no, one of them is not ‘Coding’ (at least not exclusively).
Curation is the ability to find, qualify and absorb information. It’s about search skills and fact checking, knowing the difference between something being written and something being objectively true. It’s about being able to put that new knowledge into context. The ability to do these things fast, effectively and reliably is vital.
Creation is about synthesis and ideation. The ability to take information that you have discovered and use it to create something new. That might be code, it might be language, it might be design, it might be a new 3D-printed or micro-controlled product.
Communication is about your interface to the rest of the world. People remain at the heart of an increasingly digital society and economy. You need the personal and technical skills to be able to make your arguments and ideas compelling.
All of these skills can be taught and tested.
If we are to break down the true digital divide, the one that threatens to bar many from economic participation in the growing digital society, we need to focus on issues greater than simple connectivity. We need to recognise that the increasingly dominant touchscreen devices that are becoming ever cheaper and easier to use, will not in themselves help us to bridge the gap. In fact they threaten to widen it. As touchscreens give way to voice and gesture interfaces, and we are further abstracted from the underlying technology, the threat only increases.
At home, at work and in education we need to understand the true nature of the digital divide and change our behaviour accordingly. The Three Cs can be taught and have to be, not just at school but beyond and throughout life.
We need to ensure that everyone has access to the tools of creativity, as well as consumption.