Why we need to remember the digital divide

Update to this post: whilst the introductory page to the stats I’ve quoted below refers to an Age UK report on digital inclusion dating from 2013, and therefore recent enough to be relevant, I’m finding it difficult to date the stats page itself (there are comments from 2009-2012). Perhaps someone could either confirm the date and/or provide 2015 information? Tweet me @chestertweet, or email me at mil@pobox.com.

Many thanks …


There was a lot of talk, a while ago, about the digital divide. Millions of British citizens and residents – often the poorest – with little experience of the web, and little useful access to it, would be embraced by caring national and local governments and organisations, so no one would be left technologically behind.

Meanwhile, this is the state of play today (the bold in each case is mine):

While the majority of people in the UK have access to the internet, there are still 10 million people who do not.
Of these people, 4 million are are the most socially and economically disadvantaged in the country.

“Those being left behind with technology are being left behind across many spheres” – Martha Lane Fox, Digital Inclusion Champion

What’s more:

1 in 4 adults in the UK have never used the internet

And:

a third of households in the UK don’t have the internet

39% of the people in UK without access are over 65

49% of people without access are in the lowest socio-economic groups (DE)

70% of people who live in social housing aren’t online

80% of government interactions with the public take place with the bottom 25% of society, so failing to encourage everyone online keeps government costs high [Martha Lane Fox, Digital Inclusion Champion]

Yesterday, I proposed that we begin to develop the idea of Chester as a Silicon Valley of ideas, previously outlined in an earlier post.

A hub of creativity, was how one commenter on Twitter described it in fact.

The idea is of course wonderful, right and attractive in every respect. World-class culture needs world-class ideas – as, similarly, world-class ideas need world-class culture.

What, however, about the one in four British citizens and residents who’ve never used the web?

Where is their place in this Silicon Valley of ideas?

What can we do for them – or, perhaps better expressed, what can we enable so they can learn to do for themselves?

Two examples I’d like to touch on here. Firstly, Gmail and older people. As I pointed out a while ago, in my post “how gmail’s a young person’s email”, Gmail has almost certainly been designed by younger memories who can remember sufficient keywords to retrieve emails from several months ago. More elderly souls find this challenging; traditional Outlook folders, where you name their purpose, and where you manually relocate important emails, are much better for people whose ability to recall information fades.

Secondly, Twitter and Facebook. In Chester at least, almost certainly almost everywhere, there is a magnificent information infrastructure being built around nodes of selfless coordination such as @shitchester, @chestertweetsuk, as well as the more traditional local press – such as the Chester Chronicle, the Standard and so forth – who’ve ventured online and onto both Twitter and Facebook.

These nodes of coordination provide wonderful, up-to-date and excellently curated overviews of the city and its surrounding areas – and this is undeniable. But there is one huge caveat, which in the light of the stats provided above shows us just how far we still have to go.

If Facebook can be a challenge for the more elderly amongst us, just imagine how Twitter – Facebook on speed?! – must strike an older person, who finds they need an hour and a bit (my experience yesterday as I provided the relevant support to a relative) in order that they might be able to reset a Gmail account’s password.

We cannot forget this digital divide. Information is only made useful when we take account of the recipient’s real needs. This is why I am suggesting customised search engines which serve to eliminate less essential links, so that those already overwhelmed and dissatisfied with search as it stand may return to its earlier virtues; why I am suggesting single-feed overviews of the mass of blogs, news and tweeted data that are flourishing in the city; and why I might even – as I look to tentatively suggest we begin to step towards creating a community media org – believe we could create both online and offline manifestations of its output.

Manifestations that were provided so that people could be empowered through inclusion on their own terms – not included uniquely in order that others might steamroller “single sizes fit all” solutions.

When you watch a person like the one I describe in my Gmail post, struggling and blaming themselves for not being able to maximise their online efficacy, just remember there’s a very real cost to all this. As the stats quoted above also lay out plain to see:

£560 The amount digitally excluded households are missing out on per year from not shopping and paying bills online

38% people not online are also
unemployed

One example, then, of where inclusive new community media orgs can go: the Caerphilly Observer (more here) started out as an online information resource. It became so popular, so very popular, it was able to contemplate reverting to (ie adding to the mix) – with focussed funding – an offline, paper copy, distributed in libraries and other places of public access. Now if there’s a better way to bridge the digital divide, then I’d really really love to know how.

That’s real inclusion; real empowerment in fact. If marketers are right in saying we should reach out to where our audiences already go, why not follow the same line of reasoning with all our services – whether privately run or publicly initiated? Why force those who find particular parts of the web so difficult to get their heads round into little boxes of knowledge versus ignorance – of privilege versus under-privilege?

Surely, what’s good for the private sector is good for the state and local government too.

My final thought – for today at least. We still have offline, paper journalism in Chester: we are lucky enough to enjoy it – in particular, those of us divided more or less from the grandeur of instantly gratified virtualities find great solace and added value in its continued existence.

So if we do – one day – do what I have been suggesting since late January 2015 we should do, which is to create a community media org – a CIC essentially – aimed at benefiting the whole of our community, why can’t part of its goal – part of its constitutional benefit – be to find some ingenious way of sustaining and working with existing journalistic DNA, good practice – and, even, organisational structures?

Is synergy such a dirty word in hyperlocal? Must businesses always aggressively compete instead of collaborate with intelligence?

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