The coming digital tyranny

Robert Henderson

The  digital start up entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox is of the opinion that everyone should be forced to embrace  digital technology whether they wish to or not.  She has just given the Richard Dimbleby lecture for 2015  entitled  Dot Everyone: Power, the Internet and You arguing for this and  in an interview prior to the lecture she made these comments  in reply to the interviewer Rosie Millard:

“There are ten million adults in the UK who don’t get the benefits from the internet. I have never seen a tool that is as phenomenally empowering as the internet, for so little effort. I have met from people all over the country, from Bridlington to Bournemouth, saying it has helped them get back to work, helped them get their life back on track. I believe it’s worth spending the time showing people who haven’t had the money or exposure, the benefits.”

What about people like my[Millard’s]  mum, who simply resists it? “It’s not enough to just say, ‘I don’t do the internet’,” says Lane Fox crisply. “We should give those people a gentle nudge.”

One wonders what the “gentle nudge” would consist of if people either will not or  cannot use  computers and the  internet? There are plenty of those, millions in Britain alone (Lane Fox estimates there are 10 million).  To see how unrealistic Lane Fox is let me list all the candidates for those who will not be able to use the Internet for reasons of incapacity, physical or mental, or for want of money:

  1. the reasons for physical and mental incapacity
  2. Roughly ten percent of the population of Britain (around six million) have IQs of 80 or less. That is the level at which most psychologists working in the field of psychometrics think that someone will struggle to live an independent life in an advanced industrial society such as Britain.  Most of these people  will   not be able to use computers or the Internet independently. This is particularly so in cases where they have to navigate the often poorly designed and confusing websites of government  bodies and large private companies, something which is becoming an ever growing part of  everyday life.    Many of those with IQs  of 100 or less will also struggle.  These people will be drawn from all age groups.  The idea that the young are always deeply learned in the ways of computers and the Internet is a myth.
  3. There are over 9 million people classified as disabled in Britain. Obviously not all will be incapable of using computers without assistance, but large numbers will, for example, around two million are registered blind. Although there are aids to allow the blind to use computers there are limits particularly if it is necessary to  do something like filling  in a form online.
  4. Age plays its part, both in terms of people’s experience and abilities. At the 2011 UK census there were 10.4 million people in the UK over the age of 65 (16 per cent of the UK population).  Consider these facts:

–  Anyone  over forty  will have grown up without the internet .

– Anyone over fifty will have had little or no  experience of computers as a child.

–  Anyone over  sixty will probably have spent their working lives without using computers            much or at all in their work.

These  facts mean that many of those over the age of forty will be, in varying degrees ,uncomfortable when using computers, with many having little experience of using them.  This widespread lack of familiarity and ease with computers in those over forty  also means that their  peer groups contain little expertise on which the individual can call. Those in younger age groups have a ready supply of  IT knowledge  from their peer group to call on.

  1. Many people in work still do not use computers routinely and are daunted by them.
  2. Sheer mental weariness being in a continuous learning process because  of the ceaseless alterations to  software, much of which people cannot readily  avoid such as operating systems, email systems and word processors.     I will use myself as an example. I first used computers in the late 1980s.   I began by learning DOS which was in effect a programming language which allowed functions such as copying and moving files, switching directories, erasing files, saving files and so on. A line of code had to be written for each function. I moved from that to a DOS manager which made things a little easier. Next came Windows 1993, Windows 1998, Windows XP Home and finally Windows 7. And that is just the operating systems I have had to learn.  There comes a point where the mind rebels against learning yet another new system.

The idea that training could be provided for the millions who are not computer literate is fanciful, but even if it could be provided it would fail simply because huge numbers of the  IT illiterate would not be able to come to terms with computers.

(B)  The causes of material incapacity

  1. The poor who will be unable to meet the cost of buying IT equipment, having it installed in their home, paying for the broadband rental and meeting the cost of buying IT expertise to install and repair equipment when it goes wrong .
  2. Paid for access at places such as Internet cafes can be too expensive for the poor and outside of large towns and cities such provision is often sparse.
  3. Free access to the Internet though public libraries is becoming increasingly difficult because of the number of public libraries which are closing or having their services cut. The time allowed per person for Internet access in public libraries is also very limited, often an hour in any one day.
  4. Much of the equipment in Public Libraries and Internet cafes is outdated and poorly maintained.
  5. There is little help in public libraries or Internet cafes to either aid the IT ignorant or to put right faults with the equipment.

What should be done?

To imagine that  almost everyone will be able to get online and handle the ever increasing demands by both the state and private business is clearly absurd because there are huge numbers of  people who are either utterly bewildered by digital technology or unable to afford it.

Yet that is what we are moving towards because our politicians are both enamoured with the idea of putting the administrative side of public services on line and stand idly by while more and more of private businesses, especially banks and retailers, are shifting their business online with the result that society, especially outside the larger cities and towns,  is increasingly ill served with villages being left without a single cashpoint and urban areas left with high streets  with half the shops unoccupied.

Government should act to ensure that no public service or benefit is dependent on the use of the Internet, that there should always be a human being who can be contacted and a paper form available whenever a member of the public needs to engage with a public body. Private businesses should have a legally enforceable  requirement placed on them to make provision for the public to be able to engage with  them without using the Internet.  That is not an unreasonable burden  because public service and  businesses of all sizes should be able to provide at least a phone number for the public to contact and dealing with correspondence  sent by post should not take much more time than dealing with emails. .

Banks should be forced by law to maintain sufficient cash machines to ensure that no community is left without one within reasonable reach.  The problem of derelict high streets could be tackled by placing a special tax on retailers operating online with the money being used to  reduce business rates on retail premises.  Pitched at the right level such a tax would also reduce the incentive for businesses to forgo retail premises  for online trading.

Unless something is done millions of people are going to be increasingly left high and dry without the means or capacity to live independent lives  simply because they either cannot come to terms with the demands of an ever increasingly digital tyranny or afford the means to access the Internet.

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Comments

  • prayerwarriorpsychicnot  On May 12, 2015 at 7:02 am

    Reblogged this on Citizens, not serfs.

  • julianhochschritt  On June 25, 2015 at 11:35 am

    I am fairly interested in this topic. Here in France the Internet has almost halved society in two parts. One, including some of the intelligentsia, had refused to use the Internet, because they felt alienated. These are slowly disappearing. Alas some would’ve eagerly taken part had they received some training. The other part, the younger one, mostly uses the Internet but has a much more americanized and futile culture, and is lacking the benefit of using the traditional French sources of information, manuals and guides (by comparison, Wikipedia and Google give much more random, pointless, or vague answers).

    So there is another factor than IQ. What I see there is an underlying Old World / New World division. While learning Portuguese I noticed Brazilians are also fairly comfortable with the web ; they produce much, much more content than the European speakers. So were Quebeckers until about 2005, when France benefited from the lowest broadband prices in Europe. Many ‘Yankee’ Americans of a lower social class seem to be at ease with the bulk of having many accounts on a dozen websites, and I have to say this is a daunting task for a half-wit or a 60-year-old to learn and for anybody to teach. Though the WWW is a CERN, thence European, creation, it was set up by an American, developed through mostly American investments, and thanks to American Operating Systems, Windows and Mac, who enjoy a 20-year duopoly, which Linux did not really question.

    We Europeans tend to be very cautious when changing habits, and the fact that the Internet was an American-led initiative made the transition even slower, because people feel we’d be losing something with a definitive switch. I am afraid that the tube shows are going to be increasingly stupid, as the wits naturally flee and flock to the web. At least we are liberating ourselves from the class-based ideological brainwashing.

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