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What the Muses Deign: “The Digital House of Cards”

by Porruka, porruka@macedition.com, 22 November 2000

Andy Warhol’s modern man builds a castle in the air
The deck is stacked but his house of cards
Grows as high as the market will bear
It won’t take much to make his ship of dreams
Come crashing to the ground
You just wait for the wheel of fate to turn
And the wind of the wolf is gonna blow it all down

— Triumph, Stranger in a Strange Land (1984)

The New York Stock Exchange’s decimal-pricing pilot is going smoothly, with no problems reported. The first decimal-priced trade in NYSE history took place at 9:30:09 a.m. Aug. 28. 2000, when 12,000 shares of Fedex Corp. were traded at a price of $41.05. In the decimal-pricing pilot, stocks are priced in dollars and cents instead of fractions. The minimum pricing increment is one cent.

The NYSE Website

Where were you the day the NYSE started getting rid of fractions? What about the first HDTV SuperBowl? When did you listen to your first MP3? Rip your first MP3?

Few people argue against the fact that this world is barrelling headlong into the digital approximation of itself. For many people, this is a good thing: better quality sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Sure, plenty of other people don’t like the fact this is happening, but that doesn’t stop the movement.

What we know as entertainment (or learning, or cooperation, or interaction) will be changing over the next few years. The arguments (legal and otherwise) about the MP3 format for music highlight that everything is going to change, regardless of the desires of individuals (or individual companies). With increasing frequency, the “status quo” is being overturned. It used to take hundreds of years for technology or attitudes to change enough to make a difference. Now, thanks in part to the very technology that’s making the changes, sometimes only months are required to pass.

As more and more of our world digitizes, new opportunities will arise. New opportunities for profit, yes. But also new opportunities for positive change – opportunities to help those who are being left behind by the technology, and opportunities to help those left behind, whatever the reason.

Perhaps most importantly, the opportunities for profit and the opportunities for charity are not mutually exclusive. Imagine a world where MP3s of music are freely available (not too far out with the likes of Napster and Gnutella around). While the jury is still out (so to speak), there is a strong likelihood that making music more available increases the amount of money some people spend on music. So, at this point, there are increased profits for the music companies (and hopefully the artists) thanks to the digital revolution. But at the same time, it can also be claimed that greater access to music enriches the culture (of whatever culture you happen to partake).

The Digital Divide

In order for this idea to work, though, the people who are most likely to benefit from enhanced access are the very people who are least likely to have the means to use it. Much has been made about the “Digital Divide”, the most current incarnation of the classic separation of Haves and Have Nots, those with the money, power, or position enjoying fruits forbidden to the lower classes. Being able to use technology effectively, being able to gain access to learn new skills, and being able to benefit from that knowledge are all critical in the new world each of us is being thrown into.

The Digital Divide Network defines Digital Divide as “this gap between those who can effectively use new information and communication tools, such as the Internet, and those who cannot”. The Network goes on to answer the question, why care about this?

People without ready and reliable access to the tools of our information age are increasingly becoming second-class citizens. It may be in their inability to search for and apply for a job, to broaden their educational choices, or to meet with others with similar interests. The gap between having and not having the ability, knowledge, hardware, service, education or income to take advantage of these technologies is being felt. Communities without an Internet-ready workforce are losing the opportunity to develop, attract or retain businesses.

Technology isn’t the only piece of this puzzle, either. There was a divide before personal computers came onto the scene, caused in large part by a difference in educational levels. It is very difficult to learn how to do a new job or task if you cannot read. Ramping up a new skill is nearly impossible if the instructions are in a foreign language (whether it’s a spoken language or a technical language). There are many opportunities and challenges when it comes to bringing along those who are most at risk of being forgotten; only now, nearly twenty-five years after the beginning of the desktop computer revolution, are organized efforts getting underway to provide a safety-net, a lower bound, to keep even more people from falling into the twilight of our society.

And the Apple connection is?

The Digital Divide is not just a computer thing. Nor is it just an American thing. If you’re interested in learning more or helping bridge the divide, please see Helping.org and The Digital Divide Network.

Sometimes it’s nearly impossible to imagine what it would be like to be in the position many of these people are. After all, you’re reading this site. That means you have at least temporary net access, the ability to read English (or have the article translated), and the available time to spend.

If you’re reading this site, chances are that you’re a Mac OS user. If so, then you already know, albeit only in a very small amount, what it’s like to be a Have Not, to be on the longing side of a digital divide. The platform wars give great insight into the possibilities. How many times have you heard, “Sorry, Windows only”? Who in the readership has platform-envy, even mildly, when the latest hot game comes out months before you can run it? More importantly, how many people insist on running Mac OS at work and constantly get essential files that are in a format that no Mac OS-based app can read? At that point, “second-class citizen” status sets in. A compatible machine must be found. An unfamiliar set of operations must happen to accomplish a necessary result. Now, magnify that to get a better feel for what millions of adults will wind up going through as our global society goes increasingly digital.

Before that feeling slips away, ask yourself: Who will be able to enjoy the ballet when performances are streamed? When schools assign research projects, whose children will really be educated? When one company closes its doors, who of the displaced will be re-employed?

Who will be able to benefit from the coming shift in cultural access when the geeks hold the keys to the kingdom?

Are you already working on this problem? Perhaps you have a different perspective? Let me know.

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