Digital inclusion for all
Given the current consultation on digital inclusion being undertaken by the Department of Communities and Local Government, there’s a lot of talk about how to include the 17 million or so people in the UK who are digitally and socially excluded because they still do not use computers and the Internet.
It’s difficult for those of us who use the internet every day of the week – and for most of each day, too – to appreciate just how many people absolutely never use computers or go online. Even 15 years ago when I was pretty new to the job market, PC literacy was rapidly becoming an essential for employment, so in 2008 not having PC skills is almost as big a handicap in getting employment as general illiteracy.
To me, checking email and looking through my immediate circle of websites is not all that far removed from breathing, and I can’t imagine a life in which it’s not part of the regular rhythm of the day. I’m not at all happy when I end up being offline all day for some reason or another.
But many people don’t go online at all. How come? Well, the biggest groups resistant to getting onto the internet are the retired over 65s (despite all that talk about “silver surfers”), the DE low income demographic, and those with a handicap that makes using current technology difficult if not impossible.
The latter group we try and help by highlighting the need to create websites to the WCAG standards (Web Content Accessibility Standards) and by promoting best practice web development. Even so, as anyone who has had the opportunity of having assistive technologies such as screen readers demonstrated to them, the online experience can require remarkable perseverance and skill by the disabled user to overcome the barriers that others wouldn’t even perceive as being there.
The other two groups are usually boiled down to “can’t afford it”, and so the question is all too often therefore framed in the context of financial exclusion. I’m not convinced of this: with desktop PCs and even laptops plummeting in price, and broadband available for under a tenner a month, the running costs for internet access are only around the same as a couple of packets of cigarettes or three drinks in the bar. No, it’s not really lack of outright funds for the most part: it’s a question of priority. And even more than that, it’s a case of people actively not wanting the internet, because they don’t see it having anything to do with them.
In one meeting I attending this week, the idea was floated that mobile phones – which have the type of social penetration that only television can rival – might be the way of breaking through the digital inclusion problem for these groups, since the overwhelming majority of them and of people in the country as a whole – already have mobile phones and are familiar and comfortable with them. The barrier to using them is already removed, so won’t they make it easier for them to get coaxed online after all?
Well, that may be – but they’re not using them for internet connectivity. Nor are large sections of the otherwise “digitally included”, either. For the very simple reason that the mobile internet is still a very buggy and underwhelming experience for the most part, and even more complicated for most users than a normal desktop PC set-up. The small screen makes it an unsatisfying and non-immersive experience, and research suggests that most people who use the mobile internet only do so a couple of times before giving up and never trying it again. Far from being a way of breaking down resistance to the digital environment, it seems to do a very good job in confirming to users that this internet is not what it’s cracked up to be and is a complete waste of time. Having had an old WAP phone for about five years – which I used for the internet maybe six times in that whole period – I can see that point of view.
Sue, there are phones coming along now that do a better job of accessing the internet. The Apple iPhone is one (its share of the market of users accessing sites from mobiles is astounding in the eighteen months or so since it was first introduced.) But it’s still far from perfect from a user interface point of view, and crucially it’s a very expensive toy to purchase – as are the other smartphones that do anything like a halfway credible job of accessing the internet.
So I really wouldn’t hold out too much hope of mobile phones fixing the digital inclusion problem. A better bet it the set-top boxes and games consoles (such as the Nintendo Wii) through the television set, but even here you need broadband to use it, and people won’t get broadband until they see the point of using it.
So the question is – do we accept that a large proportion of citizens in the UK aren’t going to get online? Does this mean that we cannot proceed with transforming services and using online channels for much of public sector service delivery because of the consequences of many people being left behind?
I’m reminded of the arguments when the government decided to stop paying benefits at the Post Office counter and instead insisted on bank account transfers – people who had resisted getting a bank account all their lives now got one because it became necessary and relevant to them. Similarly, despite all the concern about people (especially the elderly) getting left behind by the digital TV switchover, signs from the first region to turn off terrestrial signals suggest its actually gone very smoothly – because people were motivated to take the leap or else lose their favourite TV shows.
So perhaps the way to tackle digital exclusion is to give people a real reason to get online. The BBC is doing a great job of this with its iPlayer service, while national and local government is increasingly making a lot of information and services available exclusively online: the irony of the DCLG’s Digital Inclusion Action Plan consultation being that it’s only availble online, and as a PDF …
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