Wearable Technologies, Privilege, and the Digital Divide

by Maria Lesinski on September 18, 2014

Apple Watch and Google GlassesAs excitement builds around the release of Apple’s new Apple Watch, it is clear an increasing amount of advanced, wearable technology is available to those who have the disposable income and an understanding of the opportunities that these devices and applications will enable. Emerging wearable technologies, such as Google Glass and the Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch, are handy gadgets for the always-connected. Wearables are the next step in seamless access to Web-enabled applications.

But for those not connected to the Internet, the question remains: What impact will these devices have on the digital divide?

A digital divide persists between those who have access to broadband, understand its relevance, and possess computer skills, and those who do not. As innovation leaps forward, those who have not adopted today’s technology are continuing to fall behind. The proliferation of the next generation of technological innovations and wearable technologies could lead to a deepening divide between the poverty stricken and the digital elite. In communities where families are struggling to get by on a daily basis, access to the newest wearable technologies is not in the forefront of their minds. However, such devices could become the new normal, becoming the essential device that is needed for one to access the workplace or even a healthcare provider.

Digital Divide Pie ChartA Pew survey reported that 15 percent of American adults do not use the Internet. Those least likely to use the Internet are senior citizens, adults with less than a high school education, and those living in households earning less than $30,000 per year. It is clear that privilege and access to technology go hand in hand. Thus, a young person with regular access to technology faces a very different future than a young person without such advantage.

“What these devices primarily signify is a growing gulf between the tech haves and have-nots,” says university librarian K.G. Schneider. The reality is that opportunities, and thus societal mobility, are limited for those without access to the Internet.

For many, the American Dream of upward mobility is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain. U.S. census data reveals that a growing percentage of Americans are living in poverty. According to a Harvard Business School study, the widening gap between America’s wealthiest and its middle and lower classes is “unsustainable” and unlikely to improve any time soon. The fact remains that not everyone has access to broadband or new technology. Even among those who do have access, a lack of digital literacy plagues many underprivileged communities. As these new wearable technologies become more prevalent, the digital divide could eventually widen the poverty gap, leaving the poor, uneducated, and disconnected even further behind.

In The iPhone-The New American Dream!, Mike Berry considers the effect that previously unreachable technologies like the iPhone had on the American Dream. “As a philosophical concept, the American dream to many represents the spirit to innovate and create new things to improve… quality of life.” Advancements like the Apple Watch could prove to be a step in the direction of advancing mankind, as the iPhone did five years ago. New devices provide new opportunity. For example, without the iPhone, Berry explains, “modern society would never have had the ability to do many things that people take for granted today.” Similarly, wearable technologies could be the next leap forward in our technological evolution, with as-yet unimagined impacts on society and the opportunities available to improve our everyday lives.

Will these wearable technologies ultimately make a lasting impact on our culture? The introduction of smartphones ushered in a new lifestyle. Wearable technologies could do the same.

It is clear that device innovation is still going strong and changing the way we live, work, and stay healthy. Like the introduction of smartphones, wearable technologies have the potential to change quality of life – but only for those who have the understanding and means to adopt them.

The Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC) is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and preserving equal opportunity and civil rights in the mass media, telecommunications and broadband industries, and closing the digital divide. MMTC is generally recognized as the nation’s leading advocate for minority advancement in communications.

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