I have been closely monitoring with interest the activities and ongoing debate in respect of the UK governments activities in respect of the digital inclusion agenda.
Being brutally honest with the appointment of dot com entrepreneur Martha Lane- Fox as “Digital inclusion Champion” I was initially concerned how “inclusive” the agenda would be given Ms Lane-Fox’s largely privileged background, and whilst the jury still remains out, I have been impressed with much of the work done thus far, this despite Martha’s occasional dip into “apple pie and mother statements”. Her personal enthusiasm for the role is evident and has significantly raised the profile of digital inclusion arguably the “lions share “ of the challenge facing us.
I read with interest this morning’s published data from PWC relating to the “benefits of getting everyone online in the UK are GBP22billion” and this has served to highlight some issues I have with the focus of the undertaking.
Perhaps I’m being a little disingenuous as I have not had the benefit of reading the whole of the PWC report but it does have the taint of many of those presented by management consultants, justifying their own role, importance and significance in the activity leading to the inevitable further commissioning of work.
The report does highlight the issue that over 10million adults across the UK have never used the internet and of these 4million are “socially excluded” a definition of which is not at present provided of this number (4million) 39% are over 65, 38% are unemployed and 19% families with children. In the draft there is no mention of those with disability or accessibility challenges which in itself is quite concerning. The report then goes further in presenting questionable data in respect of lifetime savings.
There is a real conflict in the duality of the aims and motivation in undertaking “Digital inclusion” activity. There is a compelling argument, no doubt supported by the treasury in these uncertain economic times, of ‘savings “ of GBP900million pounds in “customer contact costs” however they may be defined.
There are arguments and some data supporting the notion of the potential benefits accrued by those digitally included in society. We must when highlighting the benefits also equip, in a measured non alarmist way, the “included” with the critical skills required to mange the inherent risks and danger of online activity in a balanced way.
From my perspective there is one key word that seems to be missing form the report though I hope not the debate that of “choice”.
Digital inclusion should primarily be about choice, the informed choice of individuals how to participate (or not) in (digital) society.
Kevin Kelly talks about possessing the ability to “switch off” from the digital world to counteract arguments of technological determinism. If the inclusion strategy is about choice, widening accessibility, voluntary participation and improvement in the population’s digital literacy I’m fully behind it. If it is about compulsion to participate I’m not we (and the govt) need to be much clearer about this.
I’m sure that I would be classified as one of the digitally included and thankful I am but I choose not to use any number of digital services including Online banking, tax file systems, payment for local council services etc etc and I choose from a position of being informed. My father (one of the digitally excluded over 65’s mentioned in the report) chooses to be digitally excluded, despite my best efforts to provide him with technology and inform him of the benefits inclusion would bring to him. He chooses to walk to the post office to pay his council tax monthly as it, I quote, “gets me out of the house, I like to walk and meet my fiends on the way and in the post office”. these are his informed choices.
The primary motivation behind digital inclusion should be to provide access, educate inform and prepare citizens to improve levels of digital literacy alongside the ambitions to broaden access to the technology.
This should be done with honesty with the aim of providing all UK citizens with skills and ability to make informed choices to the extent, which they may wish to participate in (digital) society.