Universal service obligations

 David Weinberger muses on the challenge of supporting the online endeavours of elderly relations:

I’m on a mailing list for former employees of a company, and we’ve been on a track for a day talking about what computer is best for aging parents or grandparents who want to do email and some basic Web browsing. This is from the point of view of the people who are going to be doing support and sysadmin for their relatives.

It’s a problem many of us are familiar with.  One of the problems I used to struggle with was a simple – but sometimes unbridgeable one – of language and terminology:  my parents, even after they had become reasonably accomplished at doing the things that they wanted to do, simply lacked any language to communicate what was going on on their screens when something unexpected happened.  Apart from anything else, they had no powers of discrimination, couldn’t tell what was important and what was merely incidental to what was going on, so it took much longer than it might otherwise have done to pin down problems.  It’s much less of a problem now, partly because of their own greater experience and partly because of the magic of Copilot.

But all that of course is a small part of a much broader problem.  Not every elderly person with a computer has a child able to do system support, and not everybody who could benefit from that support is an elderly person – digital exclusion is a much broader and more pervasive challenge than that.  It’s often seen, though, as essentially a demand side problem, about how people can get the economic and social purchasing power, together with the necessary skills and confidence, to become part of the digital world.  Weinberger, interestingly, is positioning it as much more of a supply side problem:  how can devices be equipped and configured to make them more straightforward to use?

The mobile phone industry appears to be further ahead in some ways, although not everybody is happy with the way it is developing.  The downside of that approach is that it succeeds by taking away much of the functionality, which although fine for some purposes, does close down options for others.  There are no obvious and immediate solutions, but anybody in the business of providing services to the whole population needs to find a way round this.  Throwing our hands in the air and assuming that such people will simply use other channels may be an accurate description of how things work today, but can’t be an adequate response for the longer term.