Does Israel Have a Digital Underclass?

A new survey by the Central Bureau of Statistics shows that the so-called national campfire is moving from television to the Internet, wherein a portion of society has been rendered illiterate.

Last month we received the findings from the 2012 Household Expenditure Survey conducted by the Central Bureau of Statistics. We are going to try to convince you here that it makes for fascinating reading material and is sometimes also alarming. For example: Did you know that more Israelis today have an Internet connection than a car?

But that isn’t the alarming bit. Here is the alarming bit: Today, there is a computer in 80 percent of Israeli homes. Ten years ago, there were computers in only 54 percent of homes. Progress is good, right? But if you dig a little deeper into the data, you find that in the bottom decile of households by net income per standard person, there are computers only in 60 percent of the households. That means that the bottom ten percent are almost a decade behind the rest of us.

And here is another alarming figure: Only 38 percent of households in the bottom ten percent have Internet access. Among the general population, 71 percent of households have Internet access ‏(a figure that reaches 95 percent in the top ten percent‏). This gap should have us all worried.

Just a moment, you may ask: Why is that? So these poor people don’t have access to the endless wisdom embodied in “Good morning” status updates on Facebook. Why does that matter?

There is talk around us about something called “digital literacy.” The dictionary that was purchased for us upon entering third grade does not elucidate satisfactorily the term “literacy” ‏(nor “digital,” for that matter‏). We assume the reference is to that ability − which older people lack and children are practically born with − to speak the language of the Internet: to know the difference between chat and email, and to know how to restore a deleted site, how to post something discreetly on a medical forum without revealing your identity, and how to get the subtitles we downloaded for a movie to appear in Hebrew instead of gibberish, as well as when a Facebook post can be shared and who wrote a certain controversial sentence in the Wikipedia entry on the Oslo Accords.

It almost goes without saying that we are talking about abilities without which it is becoming harder and harder to get a job ‏(or pay your bills, or manage one’s social life, or find out when there is a train‏).

But this technological illiteracy, which we until now have attributed to senior citizens, is about to become the province of many Israelis who were born long after the smartphone. Not by chance, there is going to be a high correlation between them and those who do not study English and mathematics at school. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first we need to take you indirectly to the set-top box in your living room.

The most fascinating piece of data in the CBS survey, in our opinion, is this: Every year since 2002, the rate of Israelis who have taken a subscription to cable or satellite television has declined. Last year, there were fewer people with cable or satellite ‏(62 percent‏) than Internet ‏(71 percent‏). CBS has an explanation for this decline: Israelis watch TV shows and movies via the Internet. That explanation is unsatisfactory.

What do you think of this: More and more Israelis have replaced television viewing with trawling the Internet − seeking social interaction, watching video content from American and British TV shows and YouTube, searching for information for the sake of general education ‏(read: porn‏) and getting “Good morning” status updates on Facebook.

But who are the Israelis swapping the Internet for television? They are people who have Internet. In other words, it’s not that all Israelis have stopped watching TV ‏(data that would not make us lose a moment’s sleep‏). It’s that the wealthy Israelis are doing so and leaving the poor behind.

We wonder whether the wild deterioration in the quality of TV programming in the past decade derives from the ramifications of the changes ‏(which is to say, the need to compensate for the ratings drop by using cheaper content‏) − or, rather, is it the expectation of the data ‏(in other words, the poor view in which the captains-of-this-industry hold their remaining audience. As a senior executive at one TV franchisee once told us: “We direct our programs at an old and poor women from the periphery”‏).

Which brings us back to those who do not have Internet and also do not pursue core curriculum studies at school, such as math and English. The discourse concerning those who abstain from partaking of culture and also do not have basic digital literacy is not new. It preceded the Internet. We know, because we’ve been told, for several decades, that those who don’t participate in our national conversation − whether willingly ‏(ultra-Orthodox‏) or less willingly ‏(Arab-Israelis‏) − which takes place, for example, on television, and who also lack basic skills ‏(for example, knowledge of English‏) have trouble integrating and thriving in society. The very poor stay very poor. They don’t take part in the national consensus either. Their values are not our values ‏(i.e., they voted Moshe Leon‏ for Mayor of Jerusalem).

But what we learn from the CBS data is that the so-called national tribal campfire is moving from the television ‏(a medium illiterates can participate in, too‏) to the Internet ‏(a medium wherein those who are not proficient have now, in effect, been rendered illiterate‏). We learn that poverty and cultural ghettos become harder and harder to climb out of.

If there is a truly dark side to progress, it is here.

Israelis and the InternetCredit: Getty Images

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