I never put much thought into this till recently. Singapore has a PC ownership rate of about 80 percent, making it one of the highest in the world. The broadband connection rate is in the 70s percentage as well. The growth has stopped in recent years, which indicates a saturation point – those who can buy computers have already done so. Those who haven’t, will never do so. Naturally, being one who lives more than half his life on the web, I only talk to people with computers and who actually know how to use it well.
I may sound like I’m going to talk about how to bring IT into the homes of those who do not have it yet and are thus left behind by the information society, but I’ll rather share what I learnt through interacting with my new classmates – that in terms of IT mastery, it’s not just a 1 or a 0. There are several grades of people who claim to be computer-savvy as well.
Imagine a pyramid. The pyramid is divided into levels, that each person claiming to be "IT-savvy" will fit into. At the bottom are the people who can manage basic mousework, administrative tasks like MS Office and maybe check their email once in a while. These are generally older folks who are termed "digital immigrants". They did not grow up with the technology and had to learn it the hard way, through courses or sheer career necessity.
Above this level are those who not only can do all those previously mentioned, but also surf the web for info, use MSN messenger or other IM equivalents. They think of the web as a means of communication, much like a telephone line. Some might have blogs, which would contain their rants and personal writing. Some of these are unwitting participants of web 2.0 but still are not aware of the true nature of it, when they blog, upload pictures and perform other participatory activities. Most youngsters from urban areas and developed countries fall into this category, as they have grown up with computers and are accustomed to them. Almost all girls, in particular, fall into this category.
Sitting on top of them are the "adept participants", which are people who have realised that the internet has changed much from the 90s and is a new platform with its own culture, rules and geography. These people are not "techies" per se, because they cannot code, program or create stuff online on their own without the infrastructure put in place. These are just the people who have embraced the participatory culture of the 21st century internet to an extent far more than those in the level below them. All you anime bloggers belong to this group. The people who understand the long tail effect, know what is Bittorrent, utilise adsense, use digg.com etc. These are the pioneer users of new web services such as gmail, flickr and they understand how different the internet of today is compared to the late 90s. They are not smarter than the level below them. In fact, some of these may be retarded, just look at 4chan. But the key difference is in mindset – these guys believe that the internet is not just a means of communication, but an extension of reality which has very different laws and dynamics in place and yet is as real as real life.
And at the apex of the IT-savvy pyramid are the creators. These are the programmers, visionaries and all other tech guys that know how the internet actually works, and not just how to USE the internet unlike the lower levels. They create the sites and services that all other consumers use and cherish, and they rake in the money and win respect from the level 3s as well.
The interesting thing is, people in level 2 label those above them as "geeks", "nerds" and "techies" while those in level 3 and 4 denounce lower levels as "n00b" and old-fashioned.
So why am I talking about this? Because for the past 3 years, I’ve not spoken much to anyone in level 2 and below. When I was in junior college, pretty much everyone was caught up in studying for the A levels so everyone seemed the same. But now, returning to school after 3 years of National Service, where all my colleagues were IT specialists and my friends were geeks (both of the IT and anime sort), I find myself facing a classroom full of level 2 people who still insist that blogs are for writing diaries only and hotmail is the way to go.
In my tutorial on New Media and Society, many of my peers in the class could not comprehend the main reading for that class – Tim O’Reilly’s article on Web 2.0. Even the tutor was referring to it as overly technical. But it really isn’t, for people who are living in web 2.0, people like us here. I’m a bit sore because I spent time preparing for the tutorial, in anticipation of a healthy discussion on it, only to find that only two people out of a class of twenty know what is Bittorrent. The other guy has my respect, for he is a honours CompSci student who actually has his own web 2.0 site as a project. That guy is level 4!
The worst part was when the discussion turned to blogs and a famous case of blogging gone bad, the Wee Shu Min case, was brought up. The level 2s just went banging on about how bloggers should be jailed if they write bad things because they are writing on public domain etc etc. So I asked them what if the blog had a password? Then some political science graduate thumped his chest and made gorilla noises, "But the internet is international and hackers can hack it and so the blogger should know that and the responsiblity is on him" or something to that effect.
I gave him the example of a blogger buying webspace, hosting his blog for his own use, setting a strong password and proceeding to write personal stuff. A "hacker" then obtains his writing and submits it to the police. Wouldn’t that be similar to a person renting a house, moving in to live, buying and setting a big lock on the front door and then proceeding to write stuff inside his diary, and a burglar picking the lock and stealing the diary and handing it to the police? In other words, a password-locked blog should be considered private property, especially if it’s your server. But the political science dude (he was the loudest around) got mad and shouted that "internet is public domain! Ooga Wuga!!" and just repeated that over and over again. Our dear level 4 comsci honours student got mad at him as well. But now I realise why Polsci boy said that – it was because he does not comprehend the internet in the same way level 3s and level 4s do.
This incident was a reminder to me that not everyone is the same as the people you meet and talk to on IRC, internet forums and blogs. In fact, such people online are probably pretty rare in the real world and geographically dispersed. The web networks them in close virtual communities which after prolonged exposure, creates false impressions in the minds of us regarding the real technological immersion rates of a regular human being. Not everyone knows what RSS is, really.
Anyway, my point is, the speciation of humans has begun. In a couple of decades, there will be 4 human sub-species which do not inter-mate. Level 1 will do the menial tasks in the physical world, level 2s will run the real world, level 3s will live in the internet and level 4s will rule over level 3s like monarchy.