This is another post spanning the two projects, Our Digital Planet and the Exploration of the Role of Digital Technologies for People in Later Life.
The latter project is due to report very shortly. As it has progressed it has become increasingly apparent to me, backed up by my Our Digital Planet experience, that what is missing from the digital inclusion landscape, on a widescale basis, is patient, longterm, support, guidance and advice. There have been numerous initiatives over the years, and, slowly and gradually, the numbers of the digitally excluded have reduced, but there remains a substantial number of people who have not been reached. But, as well as these, I am convinced there are many people who have been touched by some kind of digital inclusion intervention which has failed to have any significant impact because it has not been followed up with the support needed to make it stick.
One of the factors I have tried hard to promote over recent years has been the notion of “digital fluency”. I believe there are many people who know the technicalities of how to use ICT and the internet, but they have not practiced them enough for them to become second nature. It’s like when you start learning to drive and you initially think that you’ll never get the hang of co-ordinating all the different physical actions you need to deploy to drive smoothly. If you don’t keep practicing at it, you won’t. Similarly, if your only experience of computing is in an IT Centre or on a course, you’ll never really become fluent in it. At best it will seem like a difficult chore; at worst it will continue to seem like something that has no relevance to the rest of your life. Either you don’t have a computer at home at all, or, if you do, it may be totally different to the one you’ve been taught on, and it won’t magically automatically connect itself to the internet, unlike the one in the centre.
Our Digital Planet has confirmed for me that digital inclusion is about people before it is about technology. It starts with listening to people’s concerns, fears and interests, and working out how new technologies might fit in with their lives. As I have written before, we are heading for a crisis point, where, for instance, people will be expected to manage their own benefits online. If the digitally excluded are going to be enabled to do this effectively, they need to find out what the rest of us already know, that new technologies can be fun, useful, and life-enhancing, in lots of different ways. Managing benefits should be one of the things they use a computing device for, not the only thing.
Considering how long computers and the internet have been a factor in our lives, it should not be surprising that short-term interventions are not enough to make a difference to people who remain digitally excluded. Even after something like 20 years when the world has been taking advantage of the power of computers, nothing has yet happened to convince them to let them into their lives. Overcoming this resistance is likely to be a gradual, patient process. People need that longterm support, and this is most acceptable when it comes from those they know and trust. This is why I think we need a much wider, and sustainable, network of digital champions, and, for older people, these need to be their peers, as well as care home and day centre staff, librarians, and shop and supermarket staff. These networks exist in places, but they are nowhere near extensive enough. The Making IT Personal: Joining the DOTs, project in South Yorkshire is one model that is worthy of consideration for wider application.