I spent Monday morning in a department store. I am rather fond of wandering around department stores but this was work. I was looking at one of thousands of events up and down the country that Age UK was running for Itea and Biscuits, its annual week-long focus on digital inclusion.
A group of ten people in their seventies and eighties from the borough of Kensington and Chelsea were looking at digital cameras, smart televisions and computers. While some were complete novices, trying to work out whether to get started, others were asking arcane questions about apps versus browsers or how Chrome stores your passwords. They were proof, yet again, that age is no basis for making assumptions about anything, including internet usage.
Itea and Biscuits is one of numerous initiatives (so many I can never remember all their names) designed to encourage the 9 million people in the UK who still aren’t online to get going with computers. Digital exclusion is closely related to social exclusion, including poverty, bad housing and loneliness, but the fact remains that a high proportion of those who are not online are over 65. And all these initiatives, despite great effort, have had limited success in budging them.
When the people behind the schemes try to find out why they aren’t doing better, they find a lot of people who say they’re simply not interested. That, of course, could mean a whole lot of things: that they’re afraid of internet fraud, or worried about looking foolish, or don’t think they can afford the hardware or the broadband costs. Or that they have a proud sense of having done fine so far without all this stuff.
My hunch is that there are a couple of things that get overlooked by these well-meaning folk. The first is that people who work in offices massively underestimate the support they get, not just from IT departments, but also from colleagues pointing out interesting things online. Too many digital inclusion schemes rely on teaching people how to switch on a computer and do a few basic things, when what people really need is ongoing support.
The second is that there’s no point telling people the internet is good for them. When the government puts more and more things online and leaves people to sink or swim, they just feel irritated. Why should they put themselves out to save the NHS money?
We need to remember why young people go online. It’s not primarily to access government services or even (mainly) to get good deals or use internet banking. It’s for the things they love – music and relationships and making each other laugh. Most of the internet is designed by 23 year-olds for 23 year-olds. What we actually need is more content designed by people who are 50-plus for people who are 50-plus. We need less bossy pushing ("it’s good for you") and more irresistible pulling ("this will make you laugh") and then the resistance may just start to melt away.