In 2018, The New York Times contributor Nellie Bowles published an article concerning digital literacy and socioeconomic class of youngsters in the United States titled, “The Gap Between Rich and Poor Kids is Not What We Expected.” One might assume that higher socioeconomic status would equate higher digital literacy for students. (Digital literacy can be thought of as the ability to adapt to new technologies or possessing the knowledge of digital tools.) Guiding this assumption would be that with more money comes the ability to purchase digital hardware that includes personal mobile devices like phones or tablets, laptops, PCs, etc… Instead, the trend has been that knowledge of how to use personal mobile phones is more common among children from working-class or lower-income families or backgrounds. In many cases, these devices are the family’s primary source of accessing the internet. An upward trend was dually found in middle-class families shifting the focus away from technology in raising children; an example of this being mandatory reading time (from physical books) and limits on screen time. This method of parenting seems to be a reaction to the over ubiquity of electronic devices and screens in the modern era. The result, as The New York Times found, has been that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have been just as likely to adapt to new technologies and excel at using them because of their digital literacy.
In the U.S. and in the West more generally, we tend to think of mobile devices like smartphones as being particularly expensive items that come along with multi-year contracts to major mobile carriers; but Chinese mobile company Xiaomi Inc., maintains relatively lower prices on smartphones and devices with maximum features and long-lasting hardware. The company maintains low prices because they take designs from existing devices, spend no money on advertising, and sell user data. Nonetheless, the result is that the company is now the second largest mobile carrier in the world, with a stronghold in many countries outside of the Occident. All of this is to say, mobile devices can actually be a way of equitable sharing and dissemination of information.
The topic of mobile device use and equity came up during a weekly CHI meeting, which is why I thought to discuss it here. As part of a “Rapid Development Team Challenge,” we discussed ideas for a mobile application connecting the Museum of London’s Archives with the streets of London. Part of the discussion was spent on the topic of using QR Codes versus near-field communication (NFC). In part due to the pandemic, QR codes have become more commonly used as a touch-free way of receiving information about a company. QR Code readers are a built-in feature of most smartphone cameras, making them more user-friendly. NFC Tourist/visitor accessibility to personal mobile devices was a first consideration. To be honest, this was the first I had heard of NFC devices or low-energy bluetooth devices; or at least I thought. NFC tags are perhaps most commonly used commercially for touchless transactions like Apple Pay. They have also been used successfully by groups like Museum in a Box, who we also discussed in our meeting. Now I have a strong urge to incorporate NFC tags in a digital heritage project, which may be an example of being caught up in a new technology. However, they just might be a way into designing publicly accessible digital heritage projects that can connect users to information that is otherwise hidden in the archive.