Lets talk about digital exclusion. Or conversely digital inclusion because the two are the opposite sides of what is, essentially, the same argument. It's merely a matter of tilting ones head to see either side of the fence and relatively easy to see which side someones sitting on the great digital divide.
The divide isn't only about infrastructure. Don't get me wrong, I acknowledge fully and completely that when someone arrives at a social media presentation with the gambit that a third of her Councils area doesn't even have mobile phone coverage, I am going to mentally calculate which century we are in and feel something very close to complete despair at the size of the challenge ahead of us if we want everyone to have the same digital opportunities. We have some challenges ahead which are going to require massive investment and some inspiring technical innovation to enable everyone to have the same platform to start from.
But this post is not about infrastructure. This post is about a sense that the government is rushing faster and faster towards a digital economy, digital communication streams and digital consultation without any comprehension of the exclusion they that are creating.
Think about the adverts that you see on TV. Think of how many quote web addresses or suggest you enter 'a phrase' into a 'search engine' for more information. Think of the government adverts which do the same. Think of all the competitions which you can enter for free online but have to pay for if you telephone or write. Think about communicating with government bodies. Applications for passports, driving licences etc, can all be done digitally. The alternative is entering into a two way conversation with a government body via post and we all know how that goes. Think of the segments on morning tv shows which quote web addresses for more information, where the information is not offered any other way. Think about the increasing habits of schools to publish timetables and events diaries on the web. Think about all the information and knowledge which is available on the web for free, which if you did not have access to the web, you would need to pay for, either by subscribing to journals or buying expensive books. Think of all the newspaper articles where comments come thick and fast and the media can form ideas on the mood and feel of the populace on the subject those comments are on.
Now think about not being able to do any of those things. Not because you can't, but because you simply don't want to. Or maybe that you can't afford to. That there is a nice pipe running past your door but you don't have the money to pay £28 a month for broadband because that's part of the food budget. Or perhaps that you have the money, but you just don't care enough to go through all the complications and learning at a later stage in your life. That your exposure to the web has only ever been through the TV and all you can see are configurations of words with dots in them and they mean nothing to you. Where your understanding only comes from what's said on screen and it seems that there is a mass of information out there but you can't access it, and you could access it, if you wanted to, but there just isn't the urge there once was to take on new ideas.
This post was inspired by a real person. She exists. There are hundreds of thousands just like her. She's the gran of my physiotherapist. She wants to receive letters through the post. She wants to pick up a telephone and talk to her bank - well actually she'd rather walk into the branch but movement isn't so easy for her these days so a telephone and hitting 0 repeatedly until she gets a human voice has to suffice. She's lived a long time and she's seen the world change and she is becoming sick of the machines everywhere. She wants to talk to people, they're the only contact she has some days with the outside world, with the sound of someones voice that doesn't emit from the television. She wants to chat to the checkout girl. She wants to chat to the bod at the bank. She wants contact - and she doesn't want it digitally. The time is past, in her mind, for learning the complications, she watches her granddaughter on the computer and her granddaughter has been kind and tried to show her how it all works, but it's too much information, and it's too impenetrable, and what on earth is the point to all the information any way? Why can't someone still bother to communicate with her in a way she understands? Why is everyone so determined to get rid of bits of paper, they've done well enough so far, why is everyone so totally focussed on publishing web addresses everywhere and not telling her anything any more?
There is a responsibility in communicating. There is a responsibility in holding a message or information which others need to know. That responsibility is to communicate so that all who need to receive it do so. In a world where floods, freak weather and all kinds of disasters can occur, for example, what danger is there in deciding that to cut costs, we will only communicate with those who provide us with a mobile phone number or who subscribe to our Twitter account? Are we going to enter a world eventually where you can only have your shopping if you suffer the swipe lottery; will it or wont it go through without the embarrassing supervisor call emitting from the depths of the machine? Are we going to cut communication costs so viciously that we cannot afford to communicate with the people on the edges, the older generation who didn't get taught how to use a PC at school, a skill which is becoming as necessary now as numeracy and literacy? Are we going to isolate an already vulnerable segment of our community in the rush to create communities online, thus creating a divide and barrier at a time when we must unify to try and deal with financial, environmental, moral, criminal and cohesive problems?
No has to be the answer. They're not up for negotiation, these questions. Like it or not, enthusiastic or not, some people do not want to be digital. They want to be analogue, they're quite happy being analogue and frankly, I think we're insulting them a little in our assertion that they should want to be digital.
Digital inclusion is necessary. It is. Digital is cheaper, auditable, time rich, convenient, indexed and dynamic. But there is a place for both. There is a place for a newspaper online as well as offline. There is a place for community offline as well as online too. The danger is the assumption that the voices, opinion, crowd sourcing and data obtained online is a clear and current representation of all voices and opinions which exist, and that all sectors of our society are adequately represented in the digital world. They're not. They never will be. The responsibility is entirely on us to ensure that they are not excluded as a result of that, that we continue to include them in the national conversation, that we check in with them, that we send them bits of paper, that we print a photograph in all it's stunning glory and continue to give joy to people who do not have the luxury of a screen to see it on.
Inclusion means including everyone.