Coercing people into a brave new digital world

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A government-backed campaign to get the entire UK adult population online threatens to make cyber slaves of us all.

The Race Online 2012 campaign has just launched its Manifesto for a Networked Nation, which aims to get the entire adult UK population hooked up to the internet before the 2012 London Olympics. The campaign is spearheaded by Martha Lane Fox, a veteran of the online world, having co-founded the successful LastMinute.com travel business during the dot.com boom. She was reappointed UK Digital Champion by the new Lib-Con government in June 2010.

Through research conducted by the consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Race Online 2012 found that 10million British adults – one fifth of the population – have never been online in their entire lives. Unbelievable as it sounds to anyone who uses the internet on a regular basis, there are still lots of people out there who have never managed to tweet on Twitter, gabber on Facebook or even read an article on spiked! Race Online 2012 seems like a worthwhile campaign to allow more of us to enjoy the benefits of the internet. But it is worth asking why this government-endorsed campaign is so keen to bring every single Brit online, and to create a ‘Networked Nation’. It is also worth keeping in mind that there is a tendency, when focusing on the so-called ‘digital divide’, to exaggerate the potential of the internet to transform society, as if removing the divide is enough in itself to cure society of all its ills. Race Online 2012 was established in March this year under the previous New Labour government, and the Lib-Con coalition government has since given it its own austerity-edged stamp of approval. Considering that the manifesto proposes that all public services should consider using the low-cost internet first, prime minister David Cameron has easily been able to endorse it as part of his cost-cutting agenda. The campaign also fits well with that other Conservative idea: promoting the ‘big society’. That is, the substitution of social responsibility for state-led services. In this context, getting as many people online as possible comes to be seen as a way of generating a sense of society, of social responsibility. ‘We’re all better off when everyone’s online’, declared Race Online 2012. By implication, those who remain logged off are socially irresponsible or somehow defunct. Using countless quotes, facts and figures, the manifesto explains why the internet is good for us: it helps us shop and find work; it improves civic engagement; it keeps families together… In fact, it seems there are very few things the internet can’t do. And yet there are still millions who either don’t see the need for, or can’t afford, internet access. But will driving up the number of people connected to the internet necessarily make Britain a better place? Well, if the internet becomes regarded as essential to society’s functioning, then it will. For Race Online 2012, the internet has a vital social importance. The people behind the campaign clearly believe that those who aren’t connected to the internet are a social problem, especially if they have chosen to stay offline, where it is becoming harder for public service providers to know what they get up to. Bringing people online is a away of keeping them in check. PwC examined in detail the 10million people who are still not surfing the web. The consultancy identified the UK regions with the lowest levels of internet connectivity and found that 39 per cent of people who don’t use the internet are over the age of 65, 38 per cent are unemployed, and 19 per cent are from families with children. They also found that those people living in rural areas use the internet less than those living in cities, and that the older you are, the less likely you are to be online. But can introducing more people in those target areas to the internet make a substantial difference? The answer, at best, is maybe. Access to the internet certainly makes searching for stuff easier, but it won’t necessarily improve anyone’s chances of finding work, for example. When it comes to households with children, Race Online 2012 seems to suggest that parents who don’t own an internet-connected computer are stunting their children’s development. But if you step into any school, you’re more than likely to find that the internet is an intrinsic part of the learning process (whether you like it or not). And while the elderly are still less likely to be online than the young, more and more old people, characterised as ‘silver surfers’, are learning to use the internet. Where there are clear advantages to people being online, for instance it facilitates communication and service-access for the infirm, house-bound or disabled, then making more technology available for is essential. Yet the manifesto makes few demands for new funding in such areas that are in genuine need of investment. For her part, Lane Fox is simply unable to fathom why some people are not interested in using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or email. Apparently, Race Online 2012 found that ‘59 per cent of non-internet users attribute their failure to go online to a lack of motivation, rising to 63 per cent of those 65-74 and over’. And the more the calls for universal connectivity are ignored, the more exasperated the digital evangelists become. Convincing those who can’t be bothered to surf the web will involve a lot more than gentle persuasion. Hence, the manifesto recommends, in a distinctly patronising tone, that ‘rather than focus on the technology itself we need to focus on questions like: “What message about the benefits of the internet would we want an older person with a low income to see on the side of their local bus?” For those who remain offline we need to redouble our efforts to inspire them that there is something on the web for them.’ But is it not possible that some people simply don’t want to participate in this brave new digital world? After all, wouldn’t it be absurd to coerce people into using mobile phones, TVs or cars – these technologies, too, are beneficial, increasing mobility and interaction with the world. Why all this guilt-tripping about the internet in specific? The internet has undoubtedly had an immense, largely positive, impact on our lives. Throughout history, societies have benefited from technological innovations - but we should be free to use the internet, or any other technology, of our own volition, and not be coerced into doing so by a technology-fetishising government. While the internet is unquestionably a good thing, given that we don’t live in a dictatorship we should be able to decide what we want to use it for and whether we use it at all. Ultimately, by insisting that there is a digital divide, campaigns such as Race Online 2012 only help to denigrate people who are living without the internet. And, where there are real social problems, it proffers the illusory solution of a broadband connection. The internet is important but we ought not to be slaves to it.