This week, I attended an event at the American Enterprise Institute, “Veterans and their smartphones: Creating a 21st-century veterans service system” that featured former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. In his discussion, he spoke passionately about the bureaucratic failings of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), highlighting recent, high-profile scandals. Mr. Gingrich bypassed any calls for reform, advocating instead for “imagination and a spirit of replacement” in which smartphone technologies will empower veteran access to information and replace the 40% of the Pentagon that is dedicated to the “paper-pushing clerical work” that is an unnecessary remnant of the analogue era.
His proposals included reducing the amount of money, bureaucracy, and government involvement in veterans’ healthcare by giving every veteran a smartphone. This creates an interesting thought experiment– what would an overhauled government bureaucracy look like if it were replaced and facilitated through new technologies such as smartphones? This idea also has important implications for libraries, which would likely be responsible for providing the digital literacy skills needed at the community level to make such a radical shift possible. Also, other government transitions often involved dependence on libraries to provide local assistance, whether planned or not, and often without the corresponding funding.
To support this change, Gingrich focused on how poorly administered the current VA system currently is, where long wait times for care pose dangerous, sometimes fatal risks to veterans’ health. He suggested that apps and technologies that already exist could replace the current system. For example, the ZOCDOC app allows smartphone users to schedule a doctor appointment, read reviews of doctors, and compare office distances on an interactive map. In addition, Gingrich suggested smartphones could be used to take photos of say, a rash, and to then email that picture to a doctor, who could prescribe medication without having to waste time on a full office visit.
Supposing smartphones and other new technologies are the future of government bureaucracy, there are a number of practical implementation challenges that technology alone cannot address–namely digital literacy and privacy. New tech-innovations are wonderful tools that open up unprecedented possibilities for self-monitoring and improved health outcomes, but it is imprudent to assume that everyone will know how to use them. Technology is a tool, not a solution in and of itself, and can only be expected to have the desired positive impact if there are structures in place to provide training, and educate technology-users. Libraries are ideally positioned to fill this role, and far from facing obsolescence in the coming years, will likely play an important part in ensuring communities can navigate digital shifts.
Gingrich’s proposed solutions have considerable privacy and security implications as well. In his discussion, the reality of these challenges were left largely unaddressed, and by dismantling the bureaucracy, there would be little infrastructure left to ensure privacy,information- security, and productive outcomes. Libraries commitment to patron privacy and confidentiality again could help address the likely need for providing digital education to inform users of the best way to protect their personal information and about the potential tradeoffs in privacy associated with sharing data via certain apps and digital resources.
During the Q&A, I posed the question, “How, if you’re proposing to give smartphones to all veterans, can we address the issue of digital literacy and teaching especially elderly veterans, how to use smartphone technology?”
Gingrich responded with an anecdote of an 84 year-old woman he knew who learned how to play “Words with Friends” on her smartphone. Gingrich also suggested that the sheer computing power of the smartphone allows people to put things online that are audio and video, meaning “for somebody who literally can’t read at all you could give them an audio or video opportunity to be informed in a way that they can’t be through the bureaucracy–the bureaucracy will produce a brochure nobody will read.”
Newt Gingrich’s responses suggest he is unfamiliar with many of the challenges Americans on the wrong side of the digital as well as the educational divide must face. How can someone who is print illiterate find and navigate audio and video tools on a smartphone? How can this great access point be useful to Americans if they lack the skills and the instruction needed to operate the device? How will libraries and local health centers be supported and strengthened to teach digital skills to a whole new demographic?
To realize visions such as this one, community anchor institutions such as the thousands of libraries across America, will be more important than ever to help train, teach, and build digital skills, so that technology can provide the needed assistance and reform that is so necessary in the digital revolution. The library community looks forward to early involvement in the planning of such grand visions to help ensure their ultimate effectiveness.
Gingrich is right: smartphones are valuable and underused, and this technology will almost certainly improve in capability in the coming years. The improvements made possible with smartphone apps and the digital literacy necessary to use them are worth pursuing for healthcare and countless other purposes. As government and various bureaucracies shift to digital platforms, it is vital that libraries make their voices heard as leaders in digital skills education, and highly relevant institutions that will need to be strengthened and supported to better assist Americans.