Indian Country's Future Will Be Shaped By How We Use Technology

A look at technological trends will show how they will define much of Indian country's future.

Do you sleep with your smart phone? Or first thing the next morning, even during the night, do you peek to see what's new? If you are a Millennial – between 15 and 35 years old – the answers are likely, yes.

Every year author and digital analyst Mary Meeker presents her view of Internet trends. Turns out Millennials look at the world differently, starting with the way they see smart phones. Nearly nine-in-ten (87 percent) say their phone never leaves their side and 80 percent say it's the first thing they look at after waking.

I don't have numbers for Indian country but given the lack of universal Internet or even cell phone service, I am sure that the numbers are lower. That said: Just by looking at Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and other social media, it's clear Indian country Millennials are similar in their use of social media. (Remember Indian country's population skews younger than the general population.) Meeker says the digital trendsetters are young, 12 to 24, and that group already has different tastes. Facebook, for example, is slightly less important as a medium than it was a year ago while Instagram, Snapchat and even Twitter are growing. Meeker reports that adults spent about 2.7 hours a day with digital media in 2008. Today that number is at 5.6 hours and more than half of that access is via a smartphone.

Mark Trahant

Perhaps it's easy to dismiss these numbers as fun and games. But these trends will define much of Indian country's future. And there are huge implications for tribal governments – as well as for individuals. The three digital trends I think most important: The demand for more (and better) data; a need to rethink governance; and, the end of geography as a barrier.

First, let's explore data.

Indian country already has a data gap. Many of our statistics, ranging from unemployment to health metrics, are unreliable and out of date. Now, think about how the world works in the data age. Our cell phone knows: Where we are at every moment, how many steps we take, who we call and how long we talk. Facebook learns about our behavior patterns and our friends. When we search a location on Google, we start seeing ads for hotels and B&Bs. (Privacy deserves more debate. Funny thing: When the government collects data people raise hell. When a digital producer collects far more personal information, we're usually the source of that data.)

We need better, faster data collection in Indian country. A few years ago a BIA official had to testify with a series of "I don't knows" about unemployment because his report was unreliable. That's too often the case. The National Congress of American Indians says when it comes to data Indian country is often the "asterisk nation" because the information we see is scant and presented as a footnote.

Second, we need to rethink governance.

So many of our laws, tribal, state and federal, are written for an era that no longer exists. One of the trends that Meeker identified is the growth of people working in flexible or supplemental jobs. More than a third of the workforce (some 53 million people) is now made up of independent contractors, temporary employees, individual business owners, freelancers, or moonlighters. Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed say that "social networking has drastically changed the dynamics of networking." (I am very much a part of that trend, officially a moonlighter, experimenting with a new business model.) So what will it take to get tribal laws in sync, and further encourage these trends? Meeker's report says too many laws are written in a world where business is business, and "so what happens when a person becomes a business?"

There is a similar opportunity for government services. Most are designed for people who come into the office or telephone. But if mobile connections are 24/7, then so should government. The reason why apps work well on mobile phones is that you can access information with your thumb. There's no need to look up a long Internet address. The Navajo Nation has a couple of apps rounding up a lot of information. That's a good beginning. But eventually governments will need to think of the mobile as the primary connection for citizens, ranging from utility payments to voter registration.

The third trend is the lifting of geography as a barrier.

In the digital world location does not matter. A business can operate successfully anywhere there's a good connection to the Internet. The retail site Etsy is a good example. According to Meeker's research, 35 percent of Etsy sellers started a business without much capital (compared to 21 percent of all small business owners). It's the perfect space for authentic Indian art. Stephanie Pinkham, Nez Perce, sells high quality Northwest beaded vests and other crafts. Or rent a Navajo hogan in Chinle or near Shiprock on AirBnB. Or one day text Uber and get a ride into a border town.

The important thing is that we are at the beginning of the digital transformation. Then, American Indians and Alaska Natives have a long history of adapting to new technology. This is just a new and exciting chapter – especially if you're reading this on your phone in bed.

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.