My office is a little crazy right now. A recent restructuring has led to a physical reorganization as well. Fewer people and changed departments mean that most of us are moving to new floors and cubicles. When the IT guys showed up to move my computer and phone today, I was at a loss. What work could I do without a computer?

At home we also have a computer (more than one, truth be told) and high-speed Internet access. We’ve had these things for years now, and only when the cable goes out do I realize how I’ve come to rely on them. From making plans to go out to dinner with friends, to looking up how late the library is open on Saturday, I stop at the computer several times a day.  When my young daughter asks me something and I don’t know the answer, she’ll respond, “Well why don’t you look it up on the computer?” It won’t be long until she’ll be doing it herself. I’ve seen her watching me, trying to figure out how. (As soon as she learns how to spell, I’ll have to get serious about those parental controls!)

All of this computer literacy is, for me and my family, second nature. Which is why I was a little startled to realize recently that my skills may not be up to snuff after all. Several of my friends in the corporate world now work with two monitors on their desks. You can drag things off the edge of one monitor and onto the other. You can read the email on one screen while reviewing the attached document on the other. I thought it was cool and a little Star Trek-y to watch one of my friends doing this, until I learned that it’s fairly common now, and I shouldn’t be so surprised. Then I was a little alarmed; how far behind are my computer skills? How well would I compete if I were looking for a job?

Luckily for me, I have education, friends, and resources that can catch me up pretty quickly. But what if you don’t? It’s not just about job skills, though that’s critically important. But it’s also about access to information, the amount of time you have to spend getting it, and the ease or difficulty of daily living. For example, we haven’t had a printed phone book in our house for years. I assume they still exist, but they probably won’t forever. Will everyone have computers by then, or will some people simply lack access to basic things like phone numbers and listings of plumbers? How much harder is life when you can’t readily get to the single biggest source of information? How big are the additional barriers to getting out of poverty? And for those of us in more fortunate circumstances, what’s our role in removing those barriers – or preventing them in the first place?

-Nancy Michaelis