Surviving Off The Grid in Nerdmerica

March 4, 2010


In my short time in the professional world, it’s become clear that the nerds will soon rule the world.  Employers are looking for candidates who know an industry and have the technical toolkit to help adapt to new economic models. It’s a rough scene  for the nerd-impaired: venn diagrams pass for humor, and you couldn’t avoid watching the entire United States geek out about the iPad a few weeks ago.  But the reports of Nerdmerica may be overblown. A recent study by the Department of Commerce showed that 30% of the United States never uses the internet: no email, no facebook, no Farmville.  I’d love to report that people are taking a break from the digital world to focus on the simpler things, like spending time with their families and beard-growing.  The bulk of non-internet users, however, report more troubling reasons: they don’t own a computer or have the skills to go online.

Think for a second about where you’d be without the internet. I’ve found my last job and apartment online, and I don’t see myself severing my digital ties anytime soon.  I’m concerned for the millions of people on the wrong side of the digital divide. Our ability to improve ourselves professionally and seek out important information increasingly requires high-speed internet.  How many well-paying jobs welcome applicants who don’t have email addresses?

The online tools that empower individuals — education, social networking, and health information — are inaccessible to many of the people who could benefit most from them.  Many cities offer free computer and internet access at public libraries, but there is never enough computer time for everyone.  When we seriously underfund our libraries, we’re not just cutting magazine subscriptions, we’re trimming a service that our neediest citizens rely on.  But I’ll get back to something nerdy.

My favorite web designers are the ones who obsess over accessibility and usability. While their peers are enthralled with html5 and gesture-based interfaces, they know that an absurd number of web users still use IE6.  These designers aim to serve the needs of everyone, not just the early adopters.  My favorite graphic designers are ones who think of the least-capable and confused people and find a way to get them to understand.

Good design and planning processes are few and far between, but they can account for the vast diversity of technology ability and accessibility within a population.  How does your company meet the needs of those who are off the grid?  Do you have systems in place to identify technology accessibility obstacles and then address them? (hint: twitter keyword monitoring is not the best place to start).  I’d love to hear how organizations have had success including the non-nerds among us.