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It's not just old people who are digitally illiterate

They are so cute, the stories Craig Silverman recounts on Buzzfeed about older people learning how to use an iPad. A community manager teaches them how to open an app by pressing icons “as nicely as you would tap a baby’s nose.”

Hello? Silverman has found people who don’t know how to open an app, who’ve never used a modern smartphone or tablet and tapped on an app?

Silverman uses this anecdote to launch a discussion about digital literacy in the baby boomer generation.

People 65 and older will soon make up the largest single age group in the United States, and will remain that way for decades to come, according to the US Census. This massive demographic shift is occurring when this age group is moving online and onto Facebook in droves, deeply struggling with digital literacy, and being targeted by a wide range of online bad actors who try to feed them fake news, infect their devices with malware, and steal their money in scams.

There are many things to unwrap in this statement. First of all, the people tapping the “baby’s nose” are indeed over 65, but they aren’t baby boomers; they are much older, a different generation. Baby boomers are 55 to 72 right now and they invented the computer and the internet and the app.

I’m not writing here to defend baby boomers. I’ve noted that they share fake news, that they are more conservative, they have “time-tested views, assets they want to protect, and a growing fear of the unknown and unfamiliar.” I’ve complained that “my generation seems to be fighting change, resisting doing anything about the challenges that face our children, with climate being the elephant in the room.” Many are guilty of what Alex Steffen calls predatory delay: “It’s all one big dynamic. Older people getting rich — unprecedentedly rich — by dismissing their obligations to society & young people’s future.” Older people also tend to predominate in the suburbs and the country, which gives them unprecedented political power. As Michael Hobbes writes in Huffington Post:

Older Americans are more likely to vote than millennials and Gen Xers, particularly in midterm and primary elections. They are three times more likely to donate to political campaigns. Plus, they are clustered in rural and sparsely populated states, giving them disproportionately large Senate and Electoral College representation. This partly explains why the average member of Congress is now 58.6 years old, roughly a decade older than they were in 1981 and two decades older than the population at large.

But the real political split isn’t between the old and the young, but between the urban and the suburban. The kids have mostly left for the big city, leaving the rest of the country older and whiter. It’s more geographic than demographic.

Digital literacy and susceptibility to fake news affects people of all ages. Look at Devin Nunes, the 45-year-old U.s. representative from California who is trying to sue a parody Twitter account for $250 million. He has no idea how the internet works.

I don’t use Facebook, but I spend far too much time on twitter and find that the people spewing some of the most vile stuff, the biggest lies, aren’t old. Where I live, the people fighting carbon taxes and being the worst about predatory delay, driving big pickups and demanding big pipelines, arn’t old. Caroline McCarthy makes much the same point in the Spectator:

The tricky thing about information warfare is that it’s constantly evolving, and anyone trying to equip people to not fall prey to it will find themselves needing to update the curriculum in near real-time. Plus, older people aren’t the only ones being targeted. Extremist, misleading, and conspiracy-laden content has also made its way into the channels primarily frequented by younger people, from TikTok to the personal brands of YouTube celebrities.

When it comes to digital literacy, I worry more about young people who get most of their information via phones, through apps rather than browsers; everything is shorter and less substantial, there are fewer links and references and ways to verify what’s true and false, there’s more video and less writing.

While yelling at a radio isn’t a good sign of digital literacy, my wife complaining about Ontario’s new Conservative government is typical of that urban vs suburban/rural split.

In fact, I think a strong case can be made that digital literacy and susceptibility to misinformation is a reflection more of urban and suburban/rural split than it is about age. People in cities have much more exposure to different cultures and experiences, and they got high-speed internet much earlier than people who live in the country. I suspect they’re less accepting of misinformation and lies. They certainly have more ways to verify what they’re reading.

I’m certainly no defender of my generation and sometimes think Bruce Gibney is right when he calls us a generation of sociopaths, looking out for ourselves and burning the furniture, leaving nothing for future generations.

But when it comes to digital literacy, the baby boomers invented it. I suspect that the divide is more about urban vs. rural, that it’s more geographical than generational. And the misinformation and hyper-partisanship is a curse that’s ruining discourse for everyone of every age.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

It’s not just old people who are digitally illiterate

People of every age are generating and circulating misinformation and lies, not just baby boomers.


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