Do people who don’t want the web need the internet?

Some quick thoughts on today’s DOTs (Digital Outreach Trainers) Celebration Event in Sheffield, which I was at (see #dotevent on Twitter). I was there live streaming the event, but it raised some thoughts with me.

There was some talk about how the “digitally excluded” are getting ever harder to engage, principally because the principal reason they now express for not being online is not cost, lack of access or ignorance, but lack of interest. The story goes that these people actively don’t want to be engaged, so they are the most difficult nuts to crack.

There was also some discussion about how the stats about people who are not online are increasingly looking similar to those about people with literacy and numeracy issues. Could it be that the digital refuseniks are actually hiding the fact that they can’t read and write well enough to access the web.

And this leads me to another thought. I think there is a lot of confusing of the World Wide Web with the Internet. The Web is where the words, pictures and videos reside. The internet is what connects them, and other things, together. I know myself, from the work I have been doing on rural broadband in places like Lincolnshire, Cheshire and Durham, that there are lots of people out there who say they don’t need the internet, but, in many cases, what they are really saying is, they don’t need the Web. Ask them if they would like networked CCTV cameras, Telehealth and Telecare, or smart meters, and you may get a very different answer.

This could be a particular issue in the quest to connect up our remotest rural communities. Even those who do not want to read online newspapers, look at online photos, or watch online videos, may well appreciate the ability to monitor their stock via an online CCTV camera, or get a virtual doctor visit.

I think we need to stop conflating the Web with the Internet to identify why people really need to be connected.

4 thoughts on “Do people who don’t want the web need the internet?

  1. In some ways you have hit the nail on the head John. While personal preferences appear to be a desire to be left off the Internet because of its lack of relevance it’s the surrounding infrastructure that the internet supports that provides a raison d’etre.

    Regarding the reasons given for not wanting to be on line the research by the Oxford Internet Institure strongly suggests that the lack of relevance argument hides a lot of other reasons not least the ones that you mention.

    I believe that we still have to fully capitalise on the potential benefits provided by mobile technology and to accept that people can still be digitally included without adopting the keyboard.

    I would also guard aginst taking a view that the people who are turning up to “events” are the only ones left who are not on line. A proportion of the 20% are literally hard to reach in a world dominated by a black market economy and family and friends support networks which are not strengthend in any way by digital inclusion. These are the ones for whom exclusion is becoming narrower but much deeper as the world becomes increasingly digital. These are the ones who are the most frequent users of public services and the ones who are most expensive to serve. Their use of public services is not a shopping experience but part of crisis management. For them “digital by default” presents a significant barrier and I have deep reservations about the capacity of any assisted digital program to make a real impact… we’ll see.

  2. I haven’t seen any statistics, and, I daresay, your reasoning about CCTV is right. However, from what I have seen, in my own community, there is definitely a group who are digital phobics. They are not illiterate at all, in fact they can be very bright. They are, intellectually, well capable of using the internet, but, in some cases, are refusing to try: or they try a few times, encounter a problem, maybe no-one is around to help at that moment, and then they back off announcing it is all too difficult and fiddly, and stressful, and they are nice, normal, people who don’t need all this in their lives, etc etc, thank you very much! This group tend to be fit and active and in the 60-75 age bracket, and they may well be retired white collar workers – other people in that age bracket cope very well.

    I think very often that the phobics simply don’t understand what they are missing. It is frustrating to ask an otherwise very capable community activist ‘Have you seen the Plans yet’ or ‘Did you see the points on that last email’? and to get a slightly evasive answer along the lines of ‘I can’t be dealing with all that.’ or ‘Oh … it’s so much nicer to talk on the phone, don’t you think?’ Or even, proudly: ‘I’m such a Luddite’. said with a large grin, and a slightly patronising air. What such people often don’t realise is the additional number of phone calls and the extra amounts of printing they then burden their fellow activists with, as we end up servicing their phobia … ‘Fred needs his printing and posting’ I think, behind it is fear – and maybe fear of looking stupid through not, at first, understanding, and then of loosing the respect these usually capable people otherwise generally have. Apart from the things we do all ready, I have not got any more suggestions really.

  3. I listened to the stream too, and replayed some bits of it afterwards to make sure I had heard what I thought I heard…
    I agree, we do need to explain stuff better, but the problem is the refuseniks don’t listen. There was bound to come a time when the low hanging fruit was picked and the ones at the top of the tree remain. Time will take care of many, as it is already doing, people are still passing on without ever having been online. That is another reason why stats are so useless. Some people will never go online unless a family member or some other provides a connection (that works) into their property which gives them a service they actually want or need. We can drag folk kicking and screaming into online centres till we are blue in the face, but that doesn’t make them digital citizens. We don’t have to teach people how to turn a tv on, or subsidise them to buy tvs do we? Once something is ubiquitous and works easily people will use it. I can guarantee most homes have tvs. (even though some of us don’t watch them) Its like Robert Ling said today, once the internet is in the tv, and you skype your grandchildren through the thing in the corner we won’t get the ones out of reach. The world wide web is of no interest to many, just like libraries, schools, museums aren’t either. Some people struggle to survive every day, and haven’t time to do anything else much. Until internet connectivity is easy, ubiquitous, affordable and useful we are wasting resources. Far better to get the pipes everywhere with fit for purpose connections. I have lost count of the people I have engaged only to find they can’t get a connection that works all the time at home, so they give up. Routers and hubs that need constant reboots. Pages that time out just as they have filled in all their details to buy something or book a holiday. Bank sites that lock you out after three attempts when the connection drops. Pages that won’t load if there are photos on them. Videos that won’t play. Buffering Buffering Buffering. Life is too short.
    We need next generation access and we need it now. For everyone.
    We need to realise that for at least a third of the population we can’t get it through a phone line.
    Many of the final third are urban. Docklands and canary warf are prime examples where there aren’t exchanges within reach. My daughter in Manchester can hardly deliver a skype call with video, it isn’t just rural areas and we need to accept that serious investment has to be made in the infrastructure if we are ever going to be part of a digital revolution. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.

  4. The internet is infrastructure, the web is just one type of service/content that can be accessed via the internet. Part of the challenge is terminology, we haven’t got good ways of simply explaining how broadband networks are more than ‘the Internet’. I’ve tried to explain this in the context of Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) project in a newsletter article here (,authKey=763_25479_20120710105732_8d834900ce10f254077538c17e847b25.html). ACCAN has a consumer guide for the NBN that explains why broadband is more than the web.

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