May 5, 2011
Every generation thinks they are special. Dickens’s wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” back in 1859. After the death of Jesus, many Christians thought the end of days was at hand. Some cave dwellers probably thought their generation was special because they used fire to barbecue a T-rex.
A closer truth is each generation is special in its own time and we live in special times today. In our time, we are living through a redistribution of intellectual wealth as we experience the change from the industrial age to the information age. In our time, failure to take part in the knowledge economy can lead to exclusion from economic opportunity and growth.
A couple of weeks ago I emerged from the parking garage at Oakland’s Jack London square and was surprised to find a line of people standing at a taco truck. Not only are taco trucks not usually at the Square, but the line was unusually long. I then noticed the truck had no tacos but boutique cupcakes instead. The sugar junkies were patiently waiting to pay three bucks a shot for their fix. They stood sentry waiting for their sweet guilty pleasure. The scene reminded me of the Soup Nazi episode from Seinfeld.
For those of you unfamiliar, the Soup Nazi was a gourmet soup chef with a tiny storefront site in NYC who served great soup but would serve you only if you followed his rigid decorum. Any deviation would result in a loud “No soup for you!” and a quick soup-less dismissal from his shop.
While I didn’t hear the cupcake vendor shout “no cake for you!” I did sense a power the cupcake vendor had over his clientele. After all, if he decided he didn’t like the cut of your jib and refused to sell you a cupcake, where else were you going to get your fix? There is no bakery anywhere near Jack London Square. I guess you could rush to a nearby restaurant and order desert but that’s as close as you could get. This tricked out roach coach appears out of nowhere and well-behaved customers converge like zombies to get their sugar on. How? Why?
In cartoons and comics an iconic light bulb over head illustrates the “Aha!” moment. Today’s icon would probably be the bluebird from Twitter, flapping annoyingly around your head to show you get it.
I remember how I mocked Twitter. I still do. It is an easy target. The profitless application is the poster child for all that is wrong and right with the way social media is used and abused. I dismissed Twitter as a Paris Hilton app, all style and no substance until my younger sister explained Twitter could be a place to expand a network and find valuable information.
I signed up for Twitter and used it just enough to understand how it worked and find out there was too much information to follow. Tweets forwarded to my cell phone lasted for about a week before it became too much. I turned off phone notification because I just didn’t need to know “five ways to lead with more compassion” at that very moment.
What I did learn, however, is if I wanted a cupcake at that very moment and I could follow the Cupcake Nazi on Twitter, I would know early in the week, or early that morning that three buck cupcakes would be in Jack London from one to two pm. Unlike the Soup Nazi of the 80’s, Cupcake Nazi of 2011 is mobile and his customers can follow him to multiple locations. Cake can go to the most populated commercial spots to supply his legion in need of an afternoon sugar shot. If he expands, he can deploy multiple trucks throughout the city while promoting specials through Groupon, special loyalty offers through Facebook and time or location changes through Twitter.
What seemed like a goofy useless application is now an invaluable marketing tool, free by the way, which didn’t exist five years ago. If you own a small business and don’t understand the potential of new technology applications you’ll become road kill for those who do. Lack of understanding and willingness to apply technology in minority businesses and people is a pervasive invisible problem not talked about, or recognized.
The minority communities should be embracing technology in large part because of the economic opportunity. Technology innovation has fueled new economic growth. The alphabet, printing press, guns, industrialization, computers and now information technology can create new opportunities as well as new casualties.
By choice or circumstance, the digitally excluded will be consumers or commodities in the new tech economy. Digital inclusion has already been recognized as a priority in England (http://raceonline2012.org) and if this issue continues to be ignored by our corporate, government and social sectors, we’ll pay the price as a society and as a global economic leader. Segments of the population without access or interest in technology will find themselves in a growing economic opportunity gap.
Technology can empower the entrepreneur, the activist, the job seeker and the student. Soon, if not already, technology illiteracy will be the modern-day equivalent of traditional illiteracy. Fredrick Douglass said, “Once you learn to read you will be forever free”. I think, he would agree that we should not be slaves to technology, but not be slaves for lack of technology.
Article by Norm Weekes, Board Member at Oakland Digital Arts and Literacy Center and former Vice President, Marketing 2 at Experience Unlimited-Oakland.