Graphic by Kristina Miesel/Daily.

There’s no mistake. They’re home.

Children, even those with just an ounce of sneakiness, look for cues to alert them of when their parents arrive home. The sound of gravel being uniformly crunched by wheels can serve as a signal to hide any evidence of the candy we overindulged in or a sign to abruptly turn off video game consoles. One source of stimuli I seldom missed was a distinct blend of scents. Usually generated from the manual labor jobs my parents are employed in, this lingering concoction of smells could only be achieved over the span of several hours, the duration required for grease, gasoline and sweat to slowly embed themselves between individual cotton fibers. 

These aforementioned scents would arrive at two intervals clustered around the late evening, which is often when I’d either be reading about current events or completing homework. The former activity was a favorite pastime of mine. I was a gluttonous inquisitor that consistently consumed articles through Business Insider and Bloomberg (prior to the existence of their paywalls). Regardless, I’d bury my attention into textbooks or digital screens as my parents attempted to decompress after an arduous day of work. This exact scenario unfolded over countless evenings throughout high school. Our household’s seemingly mundane routine proved to be transformative with each passing day, as I was becoming more embedded in different environments, like speech and debate club and eventually college, and drifting further away from the spaces my parents are left behind in.

Social class has outsized influence over the connections a person forms based on physical and relational proximity, and these connections serve as important conduits for a wide spectrum of knowledge. Sociologists often refer to these concepts as social and cultural capital respectively. The advent of the Internet, and the tools and services that have followed, like Coursera and Google’s search engine, have often been promoted as great equalizers of information and opportunity. 

To the dismay of egalitarians, this noble assertion is not fully true as some, like my working-class family, are still living in darkness. Essentially, the technological illiteracy of, and subsequent lack of integration and resources for, my older working-class family members inhibits their access to social media, online news platforms and other digital-native information channels. This stifles their ability to develop relevant skills and capitalize on opportunities through the vast resources and information that are increasingly becoming digital-exclusive. 

This observation is noteworthy because our information diets have significant influence over how we perceive and interact with the world, and my working-class family is at greater risk of being put in a disadvantageous position when unplugged. For example, if they are unaware of rising inflation, it limits their ability to make appropriate financial adjustments, such as modifying their grocery list and budget. As the Internet enters the early stages of Web 3.0, my family’s information bubble remains much less dynamic relative to most people I’ve encountered throughout life. They rely on their budget smartphones for calls and rudimentary tasks, seldom use computers and one of my parents doesn’t even have an email address, unfamiliar with the enormous influence digital media platforms wield over society.

At the surface level, my family misses out on innocuous content. Memes are littered across every digital space to serve as a colloquial, humorous form of expression, yet despite their influence on contemporary culture, they have yet to permeate the spaces my older family members typically occupy. As a result, my family likely doesn’t know what a Karen is, the characteristics of a Chad, or any other concept with digital origins that might be deciphered with the Urban Dictionary website. But this exclusion impacts them much more severely than missing out on widespread comedy. They have missed out on participating in and observing viral phenomena in real-time, such as the Gamestop short squeeze and various major political and activist-oriented movements. A plethora of politicians, celebrities and influential figures are active on these virtual public forums, just a few keystrokes and clicks away, but due to my family’s technological illiteracy, they are not within reach. They have limited digital avenues for participating in digital activism, accumulating political capital, and projecting their voices on various existential matters. 

Digital developments such as direct-to-consumer brands and ghost kitchens were unfathomable not too long ago and we now take them for granted, but they have yet to reach my family. Although there are fewer gatekept barriers associated with digitally-integrated products and services, there is a spectrum in terms of awareness and affordability. For example, ride sharing and food delivery apps have widespread use among the public, whereas coveted, niche NFTs have skyrocketed to exorbitant prices exclusive affordable for the wealthy while non-esoteric NFTs are reasonable to obtain. Despite the generic accessibility associated with these emerging technologies, my older working-class family members have limited funds and little to no awareness, the latter of which is primarily due to their unfamiliarity with technology at a more basic level and their consequential minimal usage. 

The limited literacy and usage of technology within my family does not only restrict them from digital information and convenience services, but it also prohibits their participation in digitized data collection. Corporations and businesses that seek public input do not reach them and will unintentionally innovate without their input. Consequently, these nascent technologies will cater exclusively towards those with the means to utilize them. After several iterations, my family is no longer a part of the target audience, leaving them further behind in this technological ecosystem.

When I inform my parents of some of the aforementioned trends and events, as I am one of their few consistent sources of information, they share lived experiences that represent direct impacts of the global and national trends they remain unaware of, which affirms their relative proximity to the very shifting digital and economic ecosystems that harm them. Terms associated with current trends and events — like the creator economy, the metaverse, “transitory” inflation and the reconciliation bill — are at best on their periphery. But these nebulous words are increasingly becoming a part of society’s lexicon, and their implications on the workforce, financial markets and government will prove to be disruptive, whether my family knows about them in advance or not. For example, one of my parents is a fast food crew member and works at a routinely understaffed location. The rise of the gig and creator economies, alongside other forces, have diminished the applicant pool and results in my parent’s frequently working overtime without understanding the macro forces at play.

The tragic irony in writing this piece is that my family, without inorganic intervention, will never lay their eyes upon this work. Yet another stark reminder of how my family and I are at times worlds apart, our respective environments separated by underlying forces influenced along social strata lines. We are all living in a world submerged in a deep pool of information, whose ocean currents are propelled by the Internet and the tectonic plates of the digital landscape are shifting at warp speeds. I am merely an aqueduct that filters high volumes of data and drips out condensed droplets in a desolate desert.

Despite the drastic changes and amount of experiences I’ve gone through, I will always have the working-class experience as a part of my story. I’ve absorbed plenty of information and memories, but my nose will never forget to register whiffs of manual labor. The blue-collar smells of gasoline, grease and sweat now serve as a signal to involuntarily reminisce about my parents coming home from work. Over the span of several hours, base notes of stability and unconditional love have been imbued into their signature scents. It’s quite clear that my family’s scant engagement with the digital world due to their unfamiliarity and limited resources places them in a disadvantageous position. Their procurement of information takes place primarily through in-person interactions and conversations, which pales in comparison to the deep reservoir of information most people access through social media and digital news outlets. This means that my parents are unlikely to hear about news coverage and discourse over relevant and significant matters as they arise, further perpetuating the discrepancies in information they experience as late adopters to technology, yet their lived experiences, labor and love would make their contributions to these digital spheres incredibly valuable. The consequences of this for families like mine are that they rely on a handful of connections to those they deem as technology savants to keep them in the loop. What this means for society is that, without intervention, information deserts in underrepresented areas will persist and worsen. The stories and input of underrepresented people will continue to be meager across the digital landscape and the consequential social, political and economic movements the landscape informs. If society hopes to foster a more inclusive future, it is imperative to reflect on who is not present, and we must ensure everyone has a seat at both the physical and digital tables.

MiC Columnist Gustavo Sacramento can be reached at gsacrame@umich.edu.