Digital inclusion: how do you tell?

The 5th National Digital Inclusion Conference kicks off later this morning – with live video available free (though with all three main party leaders appearing in recordings, some will be more live than others).  Their presence – albeit ghostly – is an indicator of how much more visible this has become over the last year,  starting with the Digital Britain report and becoming much more visible with the appointment of Martha Lane Fox as digital inclusion champion and Race Online 2012.

A lot of that – for good reason – focuses on who is digitally excluded and what benefits there might be to them as individuals and to society more generally from getting online.  But there has been less attention that I am aware of on the question of what counts as being included:  at what point can you say that somebody once digitally excluded has switched categories?

That question looks deceptively easy.  Somebody without the means or the skills to access the internet is clearly excluded.  So somebody with the means and the skills must surely be counted as among the included.  But of course it isn’t as simple as that, because neither means nor skills are simple binary states.

A while ago, I was talking to a young man looking for a job, and asked him why he didn’t look online.  Because it’s two buses to get to the public library and you only get half an hour, was his reply.  Or being in a library myself and watching an older man asking a bit tentatively if he could use one of the computers and being firmly told that he could book a slot for three days time.  He turned away looking crestfallen and without making a booking.  It didn’t look as though he would be back.  Remote, uncertain, and limited access is better than none.  But it is hardly inclusion. That’s in part because there is something transformational about the always on internet.  The obvious excitement of broadband access is its speed; the more subtle but, I suspect, at least as important difference is that it is always just there.  Access two bus rides away is not just less convenient, it is a different kind of experience.

But even once access is established, there are skills and confidence.  Surfing web sites or writing an email is not the same as checking a bank balance or booking flight, still less claiming a benefit.  Nor is that scale as linear as it might once have appeared:  being comfortable with bebo or facebook does not necessarily translate into confidence beyond the hedged garden.

All of that shows that the question of who is digitally included is not as easy as it might first look but treats it as essentially pragmatic.  But increasingly the question of digital inclusion is treated not as a practical question but but a moral one:  75% of UK respondents to the BBC survey published this week believe that internet access is a fundamental right, and 87% say that the internet has increased their freedom.

Another piece of research published this week, by the US Social Science Research Council (with a summary at Ars Technica) challenges the idea – for the USA at at least – that there are significant groups excluding themselves by pure lack of interest:

When we began our conversations with non-adopters, we expected to hear with some frequency from people who were not interested in the Internet… But we found no such group, even among respondents with profound histories of marginalization—the homeless, people with long-term disabilities, people recently released from lengthy prison sentences, non-English speakers from new immigrant communities, and residents of a rural community without electricity or running water. No one needed to be convinced of the importance of Internet use or of the value of broadband adoption in the home.

Nor was this view based on abstract ideas:

In most cases, non-adopters talk about the Internet as a concrete, immediate need. Non-adopters increasingly must use the Internet in their interactions with employers, schools, and government, as services move online. When people lack adequate access or the necessary skills to navigate critical services, their experience is not typically one of empowerment but of fear and frustration. For this reason, we talk about “drivers” of adoption—positive and negative—rather than the “value” of the Internet to these communities.

Job searches, education, and interactions with e-government services consistently stood out as the most urgent of these needs, and one or more of these figured in every conversation with non-adopters.

The question of who should be seen – or perhaps more importantly, who sees themselves – as digitally included is critically important.  Abstract ambitions will not get translated into reality if we cannot be clear quite what it is we are trying to achieve – and what will count as success.

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