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Digital Divide: Canada's Poorest Sacrifice Basic Needs To Get Connected

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Yuji Toyozato exemplifies Canada's digital divide: Homeless and struggling with addiction, even answering his new smartphone is a problem.
Yuji Toyozato exemplifies Canada's digital divide: Homeless and struggling with addiction, even answering his new smartphone is a problem.

Yuji Toyozato clutches his ringing phone and panics. He has no idea how to answer it.

How could he be so stupid? He’s owned the thing for two damned months, but still feels like a baby holding a grown-up’s toy. As the ringtone becomes louder, his anxiety mounts. Green circles emanate from the phone icon, taunting him like a bully. “What’s the matter? You can’t pick me up?”

No. He doesn’t know how.

Why is something so simple for everyone else so hard for me?

Stupid, stupid.

Yuji hands me the Samsung Galaxy S3. It’s an automated call from Microsoft with a password to access his Hotmail account. “You answer it,” he says. Surely a younger person will know what to do. Yet I’m just as dumbfounded as I jab at that menacing green icon. But where Yuji feels shame, I feel blame.

Why did Samsung screw up so badly?

Stupid, stupid company.

The phone stops ringing. We look at it in disbelief. Outside the fluorescent-lit lobby of a Toronto library, we can hear the August rain. It occurs to me that Yuji is learning a language I speak fluently.

He first touched a computer at 56, almost 40 years after moving to Canada. He has spent the last few decades in homeless shelters and on the street. At 60, his wrinkle-free skin and twinkling eyes don’t betray his age or the effects of a long alcohol addiction. For that, you have to look at his receding hairline, barely-there eyebrows and gums dotted with black spots.

I first touched a computer when I was around 11. By the time I was 12, I used our family machine for hours each day. I had a cell phone in high school and my own laptop in university. I’m a digital native. Yuji feels like a digital outsider.

His Japanese accent is cotton balls-in-his-cheeks thick, masking his sophisticated vocabulary. Every day he scans news sites such as CP24, BBC Asia and Yahoo! Japan. He often has a Toronto Star folded in his bag. Yuji’s enthusiasm for ideas is magnetic but hard to follow. He speaks as if he’s developing a mind map -- each thought explodes into musings that inevitably end with how powerful institutions perpetuate the “status quo” (he believes in conspiracy theories like “Chemtrails” and “The New World Order” and thinks tech companies are only concerned with profit). If you try to get him back on track, he shyly repeats “I’m sorry,” and laughs self-consciously.

For most of his life, Yuji’s excessive curiosity and erratic personality have left him on the fringes. Isolated. Disconnected. But he recently had an epiphany: As he moves into his senior years, he doesn’t want to die a loner. Technology could connect Yuji to society and give him a second chance at life, if only he could figure out how to use it.

Canada has a digital divide, a demographic that isn’t fully connected to the online world. In the past year, 20 per cent of Canadians haven’t used the internet once, from any location. And that number doesn’t include other kinds of disconnection, like those who don’t own a computer or cell phone, or who can’t use them effectively.

The digital economy has created a new underclass made up of groups that already face many obstacles. Immigrants, the poor, the uneducated and the elderly are being left behind.

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The cost of a computer, cell phone and monthly fees are a major barrier. The disconnected also struggle with varying levels of digital literacy, ranging from those who don’t know technology’s purpose to those who can’t use it properly. Their digital path is a series of hurdles. Even Yuji, who has travelled far, never stops tripping. But he refuses to give up.

The digital underclass can’t fully participate in a society that has migrated most essential services online. It is harder, if not impossible, for them to find work, get an education, access government services and maintain basic connections. Yet rather than invest in solutions, our government has pinned a societal issue on individuals.

But it’s not easy to connect if you’ve been unplugged your entire life.

***

I suggest we Google how to pick up a call.

“Can you do it?” Yuji asks.

I type: “How to answer phone Samsung.” More than 14.6 million results. The second is a YouTube video in which a man admits it took him “two days to work it out.” (The secret: Drag the green phone icon to the middle of the screen.)

Yuji finds no comfort in the fact that others are confused. “Oh my God,” he repeats while watching the video twice, between nervous fits of laughter. “It’s like kindergarten … I don’t want us to look like — so ignorant.”

Yuji hasn’t learned that the digital world has guidebooks: Google, YouTube and online forums. They would save him time, but he wants to memorize the entire map, even though it includes places he’ll never travel.

Open up his laptop bag and you’ll find duotangs filled with pages of Microsoft Office shortcuts, handwritten instructions for PowerPoint and a library book with a chapter on the 2000 version of Excel. Yes, he is learning Excel.

Watch Yuji use a computer and you’ll see him scrutinize pop-up ads and virus warnings like prehistoric artifacts (he often takes screenshots to revisit later). He obsesses over little details on his smartphone -- why don’t the photos show dates? -- that prevent him from learning more important functions.

But he’s also very excited. Yuji has an unquenchable thirst for new information -- without it, his aging mind might start to decay. The computer is his saviour. On the internet he can search for income inequality in Japan and end up reading an article about the Muslim Brotherhood. He recently wrote his first blog post, something he could have never imagined doing five years ago. Touchscreen. Voice recognition. He wants to learn it all. His enthusiasm only makes his digital failures sting even more.

All he wants is to be fully part of a world he has no idea how to join.

He wouldn’t want to live if he couldn’t learn how to use a computer. It’s what he thinks will save his life.

***

I met Yuji in the summer at a Toronto community centre where he takes a class, but he soon disappeared. He didn’t answer my emails. He stopped going to school. I assumed it was the last I’d hear from him. About a month later, a message from Yuji landed in my inbox:

“I feel sorry to stop abruptly sharing a little more my experience. On the day I received your email, I spent all my time on Excel exercise, but I couldn’t deal with the problem at all. The outcome prompted me to think about whether my current learning actually helps ease the digital gap. I understand how important and indispensable Excel and any other MS Office Program are, especially in school, but I am not yet ready to learn these programs. I bought a cell phone recently. I don’t understand well its functionalities. This is one good example of digital gap. I guess how many other forks [sic] like ignorant me suffer from the consequence and are kept in dark side.

“Needless to say, how people can imagine how people in third world can improve their living without access to digital device and digital infrastructure. If so, poor people cannot get rid of poverty for good. Thank you for reading.”

***

What would help Yuji? There is no one answer. Yet our government wants to simplify the issue. It touts 99 per cent wireless signal coverage and brags that it will allow more competition in the telecom market. Give people access to the internet and the problem will take care of itself. But that’s like saying if we build a road, all citizens will drive. The situation is more complex.

The digital divide is a spectrum. Rather than haves and have-nots, it’s made up of people suffering from varying degrees of disconnection. They’re easy to find -- almost everyone I met at community centres while reporting this story struggled with technology in some way. I spoke with Lianne Stein, a low-income woman who doesn’t think she needs the internet, Desrai-Ann McCallum, a single mom who owns a tablet but doesn’t know how to use it, and Taban Khurshid, a new Canadian and mother of four who is digitally literate but can barely afford to stay connected. These are the diverse faces of Canada’s new underclass. No single fix will solve their diverse dilemmas.

Things could have been different.

The web in Canada was originally run by academics and cost nothing, but in the mid-90s the network was bought by Bell and became a for-profit business. The internet was seen as a luxury and policymakers failed to anticipate how essential it would become. Instead of crafting a digital policy like other developed countries — such as Britain, New Zealand, Australia and the U.S. — Canada did nothing. Oh, except talk.

The government’s approach to the digital divide is laughable. Years of committee meetings and expert submissions on a national digital strategy have resulted in no policy changes. The only action on the horizon is a public hearing in 2014 to debate whether broadband access among other things is “required by all Canadians to fully participate in the digital economy.” The answer seems self-evident, yet in 2011, half a decade after the launch of Facebook, Gmail and YouTube, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) posed the same question and answered “no.”

Of course broadband is an essential service. I wouldn’t know how to live without it.

At 7:30 a.m. I wake up to my iPhone’s Marimba ringtone. Before I’m fully awake, I’m already swiping and tapping. The weather app. E-mail. My news feed. A roadmap for my day takes shape. I work on a computer. I Google anything I need to know. I stream music online. I have more conversations on a screen than in person. Before I go to bed, I set my iPhone alarm.

Yuji first touched a computer in 2009 when a homeless shelter counsellor set him up with a Hotmail account. The man said it could help him find a job, but Yuji failed to see how. He found work by word-of-mouth or from posters. He had no one to e-mail. He hadn’t spoken to his parents since 2003 and his addictive behaviour had alienated most of his friends.

Yuji moved to Canada in 1974 to escape Japan’s oppressive and hectic culture. He dropped out of university in Tokyo and ended up working late nights as a cook in Banff, Calgary and Vancouver. He started drinking. He lost jobs and drifted from one North American city to the next, looking for work. Within a decade, Yuji had become a vagabond.

He had no concept of the technological revolution happening around him. He was in San Francisco in 1995 when Sergey Brin and Larry Page met and started the search engine that would become Google. Yuji was busy scrounging money for booze so he wouldn’t have to drink Lysol or rubbing alcohol.

It wasn’t until he moved to Toronto in 2007 that Yuji really noticed computers. In libraries and community centres he saw people watching movies and playing games. What about these boxes was so transfixing? Could he use them to watch Japanese dramas and read the news? The thought seemed far-fetched. Yuji was disheveled, aging and jobless. He puked bile on the street after drinking too much. How could he begin to enter this new world?

He desperately wanted a second chance at life. He would have to stop drinking and find an apartment, but he knew he couldn’t fully rejoin society without learning to use technology.

He didn’t have any time to lose.

Yuji cleaned up his appearance. He cut his hair and soon after started using dollar-store dye to turn his grey head a shiny black. He chewed bubble gum to cover up the smell of his rotting gums.

He enrolled in a four-week basic computer course at a shelter, but when he tried to practice on a public computer, he couldn’t even use the mouse. Why wasn’t it more straightforward? The motion he’d watched others do so easily felt foreign and awkward. Right, left. Up, down. Simple. Yet he didn’t have enough motor control to click with precision and would open the wrong links. Yuji practiced the same movement for hours. Meanwhile, digital natives were swiping their new third-generation iPhone touchscreens.

His progress was slowed by computer time limits, noisy neighbours and operating hours. After a year of working around other people’s schedules, Yuji decided he needed buy his own laptop to make any real headway. It was an expensive decision.

***

How much time do you spend deliberating before buying a new computer? There’s the brand, the model and then what everybody moans about: the price.

Yet if I lost my iPhone tomorrow, I’d buy a new one within a week. Not everyone can afford that kind of luxury.

Single Ontarians on social assistance receive an average of $250 a month for basic needs (excluding money for rent). Deciding to spend $500 on an entry-level laptop or commit to a monthly cell phone plan is often not an option.

In 2010, Yuji started saving. In total, he received around $800 a month in social assistance. After he paid for rent, food, a Metropass and basic necessities such as toilet paper, he could scrimp together around $100. He wouldn’t even treat himself to McDonald’s.

After nine months, Yuji had saved enough to buy his first laptop, a $600 Acer.

Hard as it was, saving was easier for Yuji than it is for Taban Khurshid. The trained pharmacist must also feed and provide for three sons aged between 16 and 22. Since coming to Canada from Pakistan, neither Taban nor her engineer husband have been able to find work. The family of five share one precious laptop that the boys need to finish their homework and the parents need to launch a pharmaceutical export business.

Already the family’s social assistance is stretched thin. Their monthly internet and cell phone bills add up to $75.

“All my sons they say ‘please mom, bring juices,’ and I say ‘no, drink only water, that is good enough.’” Khurshid’s eyes pool with tears and her voice gets softer.

“I can manage only to fill the stomach of my children ...They all want meat. But I get it just once a week.”

When poor people spend on technology the cost eats up nearly five times more of their annual income than it does for Canada’s richest. It’s no surprise then that almost 100 per cent of those in the top income bracket have home internet access compared with just over half of those who earn $30,000 or less. To pay for telecom services, Canada’s poorest have to sacrifice basic needs.

A few months ago, a Rogers salesman knocked on Yuji’s door. He was promoting a deal for Toronto Community Housing Corporation residents: a Hi-Speed Lite Unlimited package for $51.96 a month instead of $93.21. (Rogers now offers a package for $9.99 per month at 3 Mbps but it is specifically for low-income youth).

Yuji was tempted. He wanted to avoid tiring late-night visits to the library to plod through exercises for his adult literacy class. The back and forth, usually five times a week, left him so exhausted that toward the end of July he temporarily stopped showing up to school.

Though the Rogers offer was on par with what most Canadians pay for broadband, $51, even mid-income earners find the cost unreasonable. Yuji pays around $50 for his cell phone, higher than the $31 Canadian average for basic service, which is already more expensive than what it costs in the U.K., France, Australia and Japan.

To afford both, Yuji would have to give up expensive groceries such as meat and cheese. As a diabetic, he should be watching his diet, but paying for broadband would mean relying more on food banks that provide only basics such as bread and canned food. He says technology is “almost the same as food. This is sustenance … It’s like a lifeline.” But should anyone have to give up necessities to be connected?

Yuji didn’t know enough to ask the Rogers salesperson the right questions. He might have found he didn’t need unlimited access, which made up a third of the package’s cost. He might have discovered that a 6 Mbps speed might be too slow for streaming and downloading the movies he regularly watched.

After an hour-long visit, Yuji signed up.

I also recently looked for an Internet package. I had many questions, but knew where to find answers. I started with a Facebook post asking about the independent ISP TekSavvy and optimal download speeds. I had nine responses within five hours and decided on 15 Mbps. In the end, after an installation fiasco, I asked my neighbour over e-mail if I could simply join his network. A friend helped me buy and install a WiFi booster to strengthen the signal. I now pay just over $20 per month for high-speed internet.

Yuji has no digital community to rely on. After missing the Rogers installation date twice, he decided to cancel the service. He asked his literacy instructor to make the call.

He stills wants internet, but doesn’t know where to start. He’s heard TekSavvy is cheaper, but can’t understand the differences between the advertised packages.

Becoming a digital citizen isn’t just about affordability, it’s about being computer literate. You might be surprised by who the disconnected are. They aren’t just immigrants with poor English skills. My hairdresser at a high-end salon recently told me he doesn’t use email because details such as “bcc” and “cc” fields freak him out. The digital underclass holds all kinds of people hostage, whether they know it or not.

Lianne Stein, an unemployed 54-year-old woman, owns a computer but still doesn’t see the point in getting online. She fears she would become addicted to the web like she is to television. “It’s not too good for you,” she says.

If you don’t know the benefits of joining the digital world, you probably won’t do it. Those who have never owned a computer cite a lack of need as the main reason for not buying internet access.

The less general education you have, the more intimidating you’ll find laptops and smartphones. That’s why many poor families opt to pay for cable TV instead — it’s easier to use. If you never graduated from high school you’ll be half as likely to use the internet as someone who did. And if you do go online, you’ll do five times fewer activities than university grads. For many, there’s just nothing intuitive about technology.

Desrai-Ann McCallum went to college and pays for internet access, but still struggles to use Google. The 25-year-old single mother is looking for a job as a child youth worker and needs help with online research. Otherwise, hundreds of search results induce panic. “I just get frustrated and I turn off the computer,” she says. “Maybe it’s just the lack of patience to find what I need, but it’s just -- that’s where I find it’s too complex.” McCallum has an iPad, which her six- and seven-year-old sons use for homework, but ditched her laptop last year: “I would get those pop-ups saying you have a virus, or you have this and that. I had no idea what to do with it.”

While the U.S. government has started programs such as the Digital Literacy Portal and Connect2Compete, Canada offers the disconnected no support. In fact, our government recently cut funding to the Community Access Program (C@P) that helped newbies navigate public computers. Policymakers reasoned it was no longer needed since “the vast majority of Canadians are now connected to the internet at home.” But that doesn’t mean they are using it effectively.

When Yuji was forced to look for a new apartment in April, he had been using the Internet for a few years. He was desperate to move out, but had no idea how technology could help with his search.

Six months earlier, he had been arrested after an altercation with a neighbour. As a condition of his release he was ordered to stay away from the woman next door. To make matters worse, the housing allowance that made his apartment affordable was about to expire.

He had to move out.

Yuji didn’t know to start his search online. Every answer and service we can imagine is a “www” away. Medical issues. Hours of operation. Bill payments. We can solve most of our problems from a chair.

In April, I also began the hunt for a new place. l visited six apartments, but virtually browsed more than a hundred through PadMapper, a site that aggregates listings. I asked for suggestions on Facebook and private messaged prospective roommates. I signed a lease in August after using my phone to land an early viewing in a competitive neighbourhood. Technology was my real estate agent.

Yuji applied for social housing and was offered an apartment in a sketchy area, or a place on a waiting list of 800. He took the latter, not wanting to slip back into old habits. In May, he planned to move back to a homeless shelter while he continued his search. He would be surrounded once again by the life he wanted to avoid.

The hunt for an apartment was all-consuming. Yuji told his community centre instructor he would not be coming to class anymore. He was terrified of ending up back on the streets.

Then something mind blowing happened.

Yuji’s instructor, Ben Szoller, and his tutor showed him Kijiji, Craigslist and View It. Hundreds and hundreds of apartment listings. Pictures. Contacts. He spent so much time online. Why hadn’t he known about these sites that were so obvious to everyone else?

Things were about to get more surreal. Szoller zoomed in on a 3-D image of the building they were sitting in. Google Maps.

Wow. You mean that’s a picture of this place here? Magic.

Yuji no longer had to travel across the city to see apartments that were in shambles.

He became more hopeful. On Fridays, Yuji used Szoller’s office computer to scan rental sites and check out addresses on Google Maps. He became more proficient with e-mail. He was finally using technology more like a digital native.

Yet he was constantly reminded of how much he has to learn.

He still didn’t know how to answer his phone.

***

Yuji has come far. In the late August evening, he admires his new balcony view. A gigantic No Frills parking lot fills the foreground, but the concrete is crowned by the city’s sparkling skyline. He used to sleep on concrete. Now he’s close to the clouds.

Yuji holds up his phone to take a picture. He’s never used the camera before, but wants visual proof of his progress. No shutter sound. Nothing. Dammit. How can this be so hard? Am I stupid?

Has he really moved forward if he can’t document it?

The new apartment is a big improvement — clean social housing in a quiet seniors’ residence. He goes to classes at the community centre and plans to take an English test so he can qualify for a culinary college program.

In the technical world, he still feels like an outsider.

It’s not that Yuji doesn’t enjoy the learning — the prospect of new skills motivates him to live. He can think of nothing worse than the seniors in his building who are simply waiting to die. In certain moments, technology empowers him, but every mistake makes him feel defeated. Every slip reminds Yuji he missed the digital bandwagon and will spend the rest of his life struggling to catch up. Every day, the list of what he still needs to learn grows longer.

Yuji owns a computer and a phone, but still doesn’t know how to use them effectively. He spends hours studying Excel. Meanwhile, he can’t edit a text message. He struggles to write an e-mail. He doesn’t know how to use Google Drive. He doesn’t use Facebook or Skype. He’s never tried an Apple device. Yet he has no one to guide him through the relevant programs that would help him feel the connection he’s craving.

Yuji does not give up easily anymore. He used to abandon things when they became overwhelming. He would turn to a bottle or move to a new place rather than confront his problems. Now, he studies them.

Yuji pores over the online manual for his smartphone, determined to master the photo instructions. All weekend he experiments with shots of his view during the day, at sunset and after dark. He snaps a panorama. He feels giddy. A kid with a new toy. Maybe, just maybe, he’s planting one foot in this new world.

A few weeks later, Yuji turns on his phone to find the memory card is corrupted.

The photos, the evidence of his progress, vanish before his eyes.

His thoughts are sucked back into that vicious cycle.

Why is something so simple for everyone else so hard for me?

Stupid, stupid.

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