For want of a horseshoe nail a battle was lost…

Here’s a question – if you’re not digitally active then how do you know you’re being digitally excluded? The irony (or deliberate discrimination) of the government’s Race Online 2012 Manifesto is its invisibility. If you don’t do technology you’re probably unaware of the extent of government plans to move to online-only services. Their focus on broadband access as the answer to digital exclusion is not enough; it’ll do nothing to tackle existing structural inequalities; if anything it will exacerbate them.

I’m not a fan of diary blogs but this weekend I’ve revisited digital exclusion. A couple living with multiple health issues were donated a computer by a local organisation but the power lead for the monitor was missing. It needed POWER:12VDC 3A and the small print on the back of the monitor said  ‘Only use with adaptor: see user’s manual’ which they didn’t have. They had no idea what lead was required, the organisation couldn’t help, the shops they’d tried all said ‘no’ and initial excitement was turning to frustration. I’ve never claimed to be adept with hardware but have the advantage of digital inclusion plus a son who told me ‘use the technology Mum’ so between us we did. I texted him photos of the back of the monitor; he went online, made some phone calls and sent me the location of a shop plus a picture of the transformer required. I found the second hand games shop, doubling as an electrical workshop, and operating a ‘cash only’ policy. It looked unlikely but on the back of a shelf covered in dust was the magic lead.

Currys, Comet and PC World 0 – Local Independent Retailer 100.

The computer was an ASUS52X, loaded with Office 2003, it was fast with a new keyboard and mouse. There was no Internet connection but the computer had capacity and the town has good reception. Sourcing the lead took a couple of hours but for this couple, even when they get their Internet connection, it’s just the beginning. Not everyone has the manual dexterity to manage a keyboard and a mouse and there are going to be access issues there. Then there’s the learning curve which incrementally increases; I began ICT training in Adult and Community Education in the 1990s, pre-Internet, and it was a challenge then, particularly with groups the government now define as socially excluded – in reality having been denied opportunities for participation. To operate with confidence and competence in digital environments today requires multiple skills and knowledge; to stay safe is to know about viruses, scams and phishing, about good online practice regarding payment transactions and being able to judge the authenticity of digital information  – as well as the basics like naming and saving and file management.    

The government’s focus on providing access is technological determinism – believing if you have the means the rest will follow. Those writing digital policy and procedure have the pre-requisite digital requirements and too little experience of being on the wrong side of the divide. As digital divisions are increasingly reconfigured as having complex multi-structural dynamics I worry the real issues will get lost; the reality of digital technology meeting analogue user, where the importance of the correct plugs and wires is only the starting point and after that comes the need for effective long-term training and support. These issues are not going to go away.

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