In my daily life I operate in something of an echo chamber. I work with librarians who, like most librarians, moved online decades ago. (OCLC’s recent Sharing, Privacy, and Trust in our Networked World has interesting statistics about librarians’ life on the internet.) We are daily surrounded by college students who are pushing the technology envelope in ways we can’t foresee. My husband is just as wired up as I am, albeit in different ways. My friends are mainly professionals with more than a passing interest in computers, the web, and new technology. So I know that my life and my friends and my colleagues all reflect my own values and experiences back at me, which is why trips outside my echo chamber are very important to me.
When I was in Illinois visiting family and friends for the holidays, I had a chance to see a whole collection of people who don’t use technology the way Drew and I do, or the way my colleagues and I do. A brief list:
- A friend who lives and dies by email and blogging in her professional life working in state politics, but struggled to get the iTunes store set up for her 11-year-old daughter.
- The eleven-year-old girl who could master and manage having 23 different online pets, make playlists in iTunes for her new iPod, and search Google for information on Harry Potter, but hasn’t ever really tried to do anything else with the computer or the internet.
- A friend who “doesn’t have time for email”, who, when he last went online to find the answer to a question he had about his new stereo, realized he had over 200 email messages and just ignored them.
- My mom, who has a desktop computer, a photo printer, a regular printer, a digital camera, a cell phone, and digital cable with a DVR… but no internet connection, and no home phone number to allow dial-up.
- My aunt, who is a regular public library user, both for (a huge number of) books and computer use, who refuses to get digital cable or a home computer with internet access. She has an email address (Gmail, set up by me) which she’s never used.
- Another aunt, living in a lovely brand-new-construction home with every possible amenity except broadband. The cable only goes as far as the house across the street, and the phone company doesn’t offer DSL. All bookwork for the family chiropractic practice is therefore done offline in her home office.
- A friend who knows that his girlfriend and his teenage daughter both have MySpace pages, but has never looked at them — “I don’t bother. They’re smart people. They won’t get in trouble, and I just don’t care that much.”
I would have to seriously adjust my life, my lifestyle, my hobbies, and my expectations about information in order to operate within the parameters that any of those examples provide. And I don’t think I’d like it.
But for each of those people, it’s normal. It’s easy. It’s what it is. It’s their life, and they’re happy with that. At Internet Librarian, Joe Janes asserted that we have to, as reference librarians, be somewhere (a physical location) and everywhere (online). What I was considering as we drove the thousand miles home from Illinois is that computing and the internet are everywhere, but they’re also not. You can donate books to overseas soldiers, like my aunt wanted to, by using any number of websites, which I showed her. Or you can go to the local VFW and ask for their help, which is what my aunt did. You can surf the web and do online shopping from home, the way I do, or you can do it on your lunch hour from work, like my mom does. You can use your cell phone to make calls, send texts, take pictures, and surf the web, like I do, or you can say “I don’t need it to do that” like most of my family does. You can obsess about keeping on top of your email, social networks, and online presence, like I sometimes do, or you can just ignore the web’s communication possibilities when it’s inconvenient, like my two friends do. Everywhere, and not.
And all of those people — and their children and grandchildren — are our users. We, with our particularly echo-y vision of technology, are not our users.
And those examples don’t even touch on issues of privacy and security (again, check the OCLC report for interesting data), like the family computer in my friend’s family room that’s got parental controls so strict that I can hardly move on it without bumping into an alarm, much like a game of internet-access-Operation. (The kids hardly notice the controls are there, though, illustrating the differences between how I use the internet and how they do.) Or the conversation with my 11-year-old cousin in which we were exchanging Microsoft GamerTags. When I said my tag was Jenica26, he asked about the 26. I said, “It’s my birthday, which makes it easy for people to remember.” His answer? “Wow, you let the internet know an awful lot about you.”
If only he knew.