Lots of publicity for the Give an Hour campaign. UK digital Champions on Facebook say it has really ‘caught the imagination of the nation’. There are lots of ‘celebrities’ talking about the benefits of being online and videos showing people being supported through their first encounters with the Internet.
Video clips are heavy emotion. There’s the full-time mum wanting the Internet for communication with her family and who cries with joy at an email and photographs from her sister. There is the grandmother who feels a technological divide growing between her and her 7 year old grand-daughter and wants to stop it getting any wider, and the 100 year old gentleman using a computer and the Internet for the first time and just loving it.
Stephen Fry has pole celebrity position and tells us that not being online is a ‘terrible shame for those who are left behind either through choice or fear or a dislike of new technology’. Fiona Bruce shows an older lady how to find herself (Fiona Bruce) in a programme about Buckingham Palace on iPlayer while Bill Oddie describes himself as computer illiterate and ‘feeling out of touch and lonely’ unable to ‘speak the same language or communicate with the world around him’. There’s lots of repetition of the phrase ‘alienated’ with the overall message being like it or not, the Internet is the language which is being spoken and if you are not involved, you are missing out.
Which is true. The problem, as always, is the narrow range of access criteria which is continually assumed. The videos show people using a mouse, looking at a monitor and having fingers flexible enough to manage a keyboard. There are no transcripts and no sub-titles provided; not even one ‘tokenistic’ acknowledgement of access diversity in either the design or the delivery of the content. Give an Hour is a great idea but is ignoring the heart of digital exclusion. In the same way the government’s latest publication Building the Networked Nation: the Last Leap to get the UK Online identifies four categories of exclusion: the Young, the Old, the Uncertain/Unpersuaded and the Traditionalists, without any reference to users of assistive technologies, so Give an Hour focuses on the mainstream without looking beyond it. Part of RaceOnline 2012, the massive government funded project which is tasked with getting the UK online, it is missing this target audience and showing true digital exclusion at its most unacknowledged and invisible.
G4S are big. They are the ‘largest secure solutions company in the UK and Ireland’* Formerly a merger between Securicor and G4 Security services, G4S are now bidding successfully for a number of government contracts which have nothing to do with security but everything to do with the provision of social services, in particular the governments Welfare to Work Programme. This is like giving the multinational food processing industries responsibility for health. In the same way that MacDonalds, Coca Cola and Nestle have nothing to do with fresh fruit, salad and vegetables (other than to process them) G4S cannot possibly replace the small organisations like Latitude in Hull who are working at grass roots level right in the centre of communities with the highest unemployment figures. The government calls Welfare to Work supporting families with multiple problems saying it’s issues like ‘drug and alcohol dependency, debt and literacy difficulties’* which are creating barriers to employment and costing £8billion in welfare which neatly ignores the real causes of social exclusion like inadequate access to fundamental resources such as housing, education, health care, decent food and a safe place to live. Local organisations have insight into these issues in a way that no company on the stock exchange with a ‘turnover of more than £1 billion and over 40,000 employees managed from over 80 offices’* can begin to understand.
I visited Latitude to look at the role of the Internet in applying for work. Of the fifty cards on the wall, the vast majority asked for an emailed cv or gave a website address. Those with telephone numbers were all answerphones. Retail companies such as Boots, Asda and Tesco demand online application as do the council. All with tiny print and compulsory requirements like email addresses and telephone numbers, many also include online aptitude tests with pages which have to be completed sequentially. These applications go on for ever demanding high levels of computer skills and confidence. Latitude (whose services are being taken over by G4S) go out of their way to support people; filling in forms, giving guidance on cvs and letters, trying to narrow the digital divide but there are not enough of them and too many people who need help. There is no way online application measures individual ability to do a job; it just shows you can operate a keyboard and with the government moving towards digital by default services and large companies coming in to deliver government welfare programmes, it will not be long before existing marginalisation increase on an exponential scale. The worry is that in an increasingly digital society, increased social exclusion will simply become as invisible as most digital exclusion already is.