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Posted at 10:42 AM ET, 04/06/2012

The new digital divide

In 1993 the Style editor asked me to do a story on this new phenomenon sweeping through American life: email.


On November 3, 1980 Steve Jobs and three other inventors filed for a patent for a "personal computer."
By this point the story was arguably several years out of date, but we had to make note of it, because suddenly everyone was using email, even the people who had once thought they were being intrepid by using the direct-dial method to place a long-distance phone call. I mention this 1993 article only because it seems increasingly likely that email in a formal sense will disappear.

The evidence for this is partly anecdotal. When I send an email to anyone under the age of 25, or anyone in California, it often does not get answered for at least a week, if at all. The reply typically comes with an explanation along the lines of, “Sorry, I mostly use [insert new communication platform I’ve never heard of] now.”

Or they just live on Twitter and Facebook. Parents of teenagers now do most of their parenting by stalking the kids’ Facebook pages. It’s remarkable how often young people send messages to one another in a open comment thread. (Also, the photos always show the young people at play. There is never a photo of them in the library, or doing homework. I assume this is selection bias, and not a documentary account of their life.)

It appears that corporate America is also shying away from email. So reports TIME magazine in a story about Yammer, an alternative to email that’s rapidly gaining adherents:

Corporate e-mail storage is growing 20% to 25% a year thanks in part to heavier file sharing, according to data consultancy Osterman Research. The data dump sucks $997 billion in productivity out of U.S. workers annually, according to research firm Basex. “E-mail is an inherently poor tool for accessing information,” says Forrester Research analyst T.J. Keitt. Much of the drag is due to bad habits: an estimated 30% of e-mail is “occupational spam” caused by overuse of CC, BCC and REPLY ALL.

As the technology of communications evolves, a new digital divide is going to become harder and harder to avoid. The old digital divide referred to the inequity in access to computers, the Internet, broadband, etc. But there’s a new digital divide growing: Between those who know what Yammer is (and stuff like Yammer) and those who just heard of it in the last 24 hours and are tired of all these things that are new, different, innovative and revolutionary (people like me).

I’ll be frank: I’ve been slightly uneasy ever since Samuel F. B. Morse invented his fancy little code. In my day, we were perfectly comfortable communicating at a distance by shouting.

Consider this review of the new Lumia 900 smartphone, from the New York Times. The writer, by name of Pogue, is professionally tech savvy, and so I guess it’s no surprise that he’s got more apps than most of us. Still, reading this, I have a sense of the world leaving me behind:

Unfortunately, there’s an even longer list of important apps that aren’t yet available for WP7 phones: Yahoo Messenger, Dropbox, Pandora, Mint, Bump, Draw Something, StumbleUpon, Pinterest, Urbanspoon, Hipstamatic, Instagram, Barnes & Noble Reader, Cut the Rope, Scrabble, Words With Friends, Google Voice, AOL Radio.....Plenty of my less famous favorites are also unavailable: Line2, Hipmunk, Nest, Word Lens, iStopMotion, Glee, Ocarina, Songify This.

Hipmunk is a good name for an app. (Does anyone still say “That would be a good name for a band?.”)

Clearly, I need more apps. Starting with my first. I don’t have a smart phone, and so I don’t think I have any apps. A person would know if he had one, wouldn’t he?

By  |  10:42 AM ET, 04/06/2012

 
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