The digital start up entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox is of the opinion that everyone should be forced to embrace digital technology whether they wish to or not. She has just given the Richard Dimbleby lecture for 2015 entitled Dot Everyone: Power, the Internet and You arguing for this and  in an interview prior to the lecture she made these comments in reply to the interviewer Rosie Millard:

“There are ten million adults in the UK who don’t get the benefits from the internet. I have never seen a tool that is as phenomenally empowering as the internet, for so little effort. I have met from people all over the country, from Bridlington to Bournemouth, saying it has helped them get back to work, helped them get their life back on track. I believe it’s worth spending the time showing people who haven’t had the money or exposure, the benefits.”

What about people like my [Millard’s] mum, who simply resists it? “It’s not enough to just say, ‘I don’t do the internet’,” says Lane Fox crisply. “We should give those people a gentle nudge.”

One wonders what the “gentle nudge” would consist of if people either will not or cannot use computers and the internet? There are plenty of those, millions in Britain alone (Lane Fox estimates there are 10 million). To see how unrealistic Lane Fox is let me list all the candidates for those who will not be able to use the Internet for reasons of incapacity, physical or mental, or for want of money:

The reasons for physical and mental incapacity

  1. Roughly ten percent of the population of Britain (around six million) have IQs of 80 or less. That is the level at which most psychologists working in the field of psychometrics think that someone will struggle to live an independent life in an advanced industrial society such as Britain. Most of these people will not be able to use computers or the Internet independently. This is particularly so in cases where they have to navigate the often poorly designed and confusing websites of government bodies and large private companies, something which is becoming an ever growing part of everyday life. Many of those with IQs of 100 or less will also struggle. These people will be drawn from all age groups. The idea that the young are always deeply learned in the ways of computers and the Internet is a myth.
  2. There are over 9 million people classified as disabled in Britain. Obviously not all will be incapable of using computers without assistance, but large numbers will, for example, around two million are registered blind. Although there are aids to allow the blind to use computers there are limits particularly if it is necessary to do something like filling in a form online.
  3. Age plays its part, both in terms of people’s experience and abilities. At the 2011 UK census there were 10.4 million people in the UK over the age of 65 (16 per cent of the UK population). Consider that: anyone over forty will have grown up without the internet; anyone over fifty will have had little or no experience of computers as a child; anyone over sixty will probably have spent their working lives without using computers much or at all in their work.  These facts mean that many of those over the age of forty will be, in varying degrees, uncomfortable when using computers, with many having little experience of using them. This widespread lack of familiarity and ease with computers in those over forty also means that their peer groups contain little expertise on which the individual can call. Those in younger age groups have a ready supply of IT knowledge from their peer group to call on.
  4. Many people in work still do not use computers routinely and are daunted by them.
  5. Sheer mental weariness being in a continuous learning process because of the ceaseless alterations to software, much of which people cannot readily avoid such as operating systems, email systems and word processors. There comes a point where the mind rebels against learning yet another new system.

The causes of material incapacity

  1. The poor who will be unable to meet the cost of buying IT equipment, having it installed in their home, paying for the broadband rental and meeting the cost of buying IT expertise to install and repair equipment when it goes wrong .
  2. Paid for access at places such as Internet cafes can be too expensive for the poor and outside of large towns and cities such provision is often sparse.
  3. Free access to the Internet though public libraries is becoming increasingly difficult because of the number of public libraries which are closing or having their services cut. The time allowed per person for Internet access in public libraries is also very limited, often an hour in any one day.
  4. Much of the equipment in Public Libraries and Internet cafes is outdated and poorly maintained.
  5. There is little help in public libraries or Internet cafes to either aid the IT ignorant or to put right faults with the equipment.

What should be done?

To imagine that almost everyone will be able to get online and handle the ever increasing demands by both the state and private business is clearly absurd because there are huge numbers of people who are either utterly bewildered by digital technology or unable to afford it.

Yet that is what we are moving towards because our politicians are both enamoured with the idea of putting the administrative side of public services on line and stand idly by while more and more of private businesses, especially banks and retailers, are shifting their business online with the result that society, especially outside the larger cities and towns, is increasingly ill served with villages being left without a single cashpoint and urban areas left with high streets with half the shops unoccupied.

Government should act to ensure that no public service or benefit is dependent on the use of the Internet, that there should always be a human being who can be contacted and a paper form available whenever a member of the public needs to engage with a public body. Private businesses should have a legally enforceable requirement placed on them to make provision for the public to be able to engage with them without using the Internet. That is not an unreasonable burden because public service and businesses of all sizes should be able to provide at least a phone number for the public to contact and dealing with correspondence sent by post should not take much more time than dealing with emails. .

Banks should be forced by law to maintain sufficient cash machines to ensure that no community is left without one within reasonable reach. The problem of derelict high streets could be tackled by placing a special tax on retailers operating online with the money being used to reduce business rates on retail premises. Pitched at the right level such a tax would also reduce the incentive for businesses to forgo retail premises for online trading.

Unless something is done millions of people are going to be increasingly left high and dry without the means or capacity to live independent lives simply because they either cannot come to terms with the demands of an ever increasingly digital tyranny or afford the means to access the Internet.

 

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