by Peter Bajomi-Lazar, Budapest Business School
I am 50 years old and struggling with digital technology on a daily basis. CooSpace, Zoom, Teams, and Modulo: these are just some of the new terms that the current COVID-19 pandemic has taught the people of my age working in higher educational institutions. The current task of swiftly switching to online teaching has been an unexpected and often painful challenge for many of us, as now we are supposed to transfer knowledge to students via a technology that they know much more about than we ever will.
When I started working as a journalist in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I wrote my first articles on an old green transportable typewriter. Then I called my editor on the phone, and I faxed him the text. My students, born in the late 1990s, have been raised with smart phones in their hands, and have been mastering digital skills since their early years. The Children of the Digital Age do not learn to cope with digital technology; they live digital. Starting to use a new digital app is daily routine for them; for me, it is hell. The analogue/digital generation gap is now wider than ever.
Winners and losers
For most of human history, the ability to read and write has been a class thing dividing those with and those without a perspective for upward social mobility. The ruling classes of ancient Egypt and China kept the written word complicated for fear that the lower classes, should they learn to read and write, would challenge their powers. The invention of printing raised similar concerns. “I thank God there are no free schools or printing … for learning has brought disobedience and heresy and sects into the world and printing has divulged them and libels against the best government,” wrote Sir William Berkely, Governor of Virginia, in 1671.
Until the introduction of public schooling, which in some countries such as Russia started as late as 1908, societies were divided between those who could and those who could not read and write. Mandatory schooling has allowed many to climb the social ladder, and has ultimately transformed first-world societies. But, even then, major differences persisted between those mastering critical literacy and those tangled up in functional literacy. The former used their literacy skills in a creative way; the latter simply got by. Even though nearly all people held some degree of literacy, society was still divided between winners and losers.
Divided we stay
Innovation is problem-solving triggered by crisis. The most recent crisis in the history of mankind, the quarantine introduced on a global scale after the outbreak of COVID-19, has boosted an unprecedentedly fast-paced development in digital technology that many users may find difficult to follow. Whether we like it or not, we now bank online, shop online, flirt online, and party online. Home officing and home schooling are major challenges for all those who wish to keep up. Work and education may never be the same again.
Evolution is adaptation, and those who fail to keep up with change—this time, to improve their digital literacy skills—will be left behind. And the winners of the upcoming decades will be those mastering critical digital literacy, while those practicing functional digital literacy will have a very hard time. Society will continue to be divided between those using their new skills in a creative way and those who just try to swim with the tide.
Whatever the future may bring, I will keep my old green transportable typewriter, for old times’ sake.