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.
All year I’ve been talking to anyone who’ll listen about government plans to discriminate against non-internet users. About how the words ‘online-only’ services appear in very small print inside the coalition’s Digital Manifesto. Following last week’s announcement (and blog post) that Universal Credit will be managed online, further plans have been revealed. BBC News reports Martha Lane Fox saying “Government should take advantage of the more open, agile and cheaper digital technologies to deliver simpler and more effective digital services to users, particularly to disadvantaged groups who are some of the heaviest users of government services.”
Yet the previous government’s Digital Inclusion Action Plan recognised that groups already socially disadvantaged and marginalised are also likely to be digitally excluded. “…the dividing lines of social equality are closely aligned to those associated with digital exclusion; age, geography, educational attainment, income, motivation and skills, disability, ethnic minority” (DCMS 2008:12).
The Guardian reports Cabinet Office officials saying “.. the full savings will only be felt if everything is moved online. Leaving even a small percentage of print registrations would be “prohibitively expensive”. Then they say not only will “getting rid of all paper applications… save billions of pounds” but “insist that vulnerable groups will be able to fill in forms digitally at their local post offices.”
No doubt they’re thinking of those ‘vulnerable’ groups living in residential care who have lost the mobility allowances which enabled them to get to the post office in the first place.
It’s possible that if the government is serious about seeing “bridging the digital divide as a key economic priority.” something might be done about the barriers to access; namely the cost of assistive technology, the need for appropriate training and support and the inclusive design of digital data. But they’ll need to be quick. The Internet is fast becoming an increasingly visual medium with reliance on mouse navigation the default. This discriminates against a multiple diversity of those already trying to engage with digital living never mind the 9 million identified as yet to go online.
Money saved is less likely to come from the switch to online transactions and more from people being unable to claim in the first place.
I used to worry about landfill. I still do. The long term consequences of poisoning the earth with plastic and polystyrene are still unknown but can’t be good for our future. However, that’s a different subject. I worry as much these days about digital exclusion. I worry because the Internet is an increasingly visual environment and designers are ignoring diversity more than ever; as in the abandonment of text only/alternative websites and the move towards having one website for all. Tesco is the prime example. They quietly dropped their ‘accessible’ site in the summer. The result has been frustration and disappointment for users of assistive technology, used to shopping online, who are now struggling with an ‘inaccessible’ environment. The issues escaped mainstream media. That so few people know about this is indicative of the veil of invisibility that surrounds digital exclusion issues.
I’ve been talking about this; to staff, students and colleagues. Few have heard of RaceOnline 2012, with its strapline ‘we’re all better off when everyone’s online’ or the government’s Digital Manifesto which promises to ‘do more for less’ and increase the provision of online information and welfare services. Registration for housing is already online with real implications for those classified as homeless who don’t have access to technology and may not have the confidence or confidence to use it effectively. Yesterday Iain Duncan Smith announced plans to bring in a single Universal Credit to replace work-related benefits.
“The new system will mostly be administered through the internet, with people expected to make claims online and check their payments like they would an online bank account – even though an estimated 1.5 million unemployed people do not currently have internet access, according to government figures. The DWP says a “minority” of cases will still be dealt with face-to-face.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-11728546
This worries me even more. How can 1.5 million people be considered ‘a minority’ to be further excluded by being ‘dealth with’ face-toface? How can this solve the social issues? Digital exclusion is the equivalent of digital disability; disablement by a society that fails to recognise diversity and disadvantages those already marginalised and disempowered. The strength of the identity politics of the 70’s and 80’s has become diluted and the digitisation of state provision of welfare will be a final blow to the aspirations of minority groups for equal rights. The arrogance of those who operate at ease within digital environments and don’t care about users of assistive technology needs to be challenged. But how can you challenge when you are already denied easy access to public transport and are unable to participate in the communication channels of an increasingly digital public sphere?