Digital connections

The key questions to ask are whether those without internet access are significantly disadvantaged and whether GDP suffers as a resultPhoto: Shutterstock

Written in a coffee shop in Woodbridge, Suffolk, and dispatched to via a free 19Mbps wi-fi link.

What should a society worry about? People out of work, the growing legions of the uneducated, the closure of libraries, inflation, rising heating bills, road deaths, gambling, drug addiction, those who cannot drive a car, or the percentage of people not accessing the net?

I’ve just read a report from Oxford University detailing the growth of internet usage in the UK. The shock-horror headline is that 27 per cent of the population still doesn’t use the internet, which is in stark contrast to the ITU 2010 report that gave a figure of 17.5 per cent.

It seems there’s some significant doubt here, because other sources and surveys also give a different range of figures – for example, the Office for National Statistics puts household internet access at 77 per cent.

But whatever the true figure, all these reports raise one big question: should we worry about internet usage or just shrug our shoulders and walk away?

Looking at the availability of public computing facilities, computer courses, low-cost equipment, free software and insignificant connectivity charges plus free access, might it just be that these people simply have no interest or inclination to get online?

After all, large numbers of people don’t buy newspapers or gamble on horses either.

According to the Oxford University report, about 44 per cent of the population regularly access the web using PCs, tablets, laptops and smartphones. Other reports put this number as high as 60 per cent.

The Oxford report also finds that next-generation users are also inclined to be active producers of content rather than passive users. Hmm – no surprise there then.

It seems to me the key questions to ask are whether the disconnected 27 per cent will be significantly disadvantaged and will GDP suffer as a result.

Undoubtedly the answers have to be…

…yes and no respectively. Not going online at all means you pay higher prices and suffer more inconvenience than the connected majority. And as for the GDP, the disconnected are largely non-contributors anyway.

Local traders, small businesses, the retired community, the poorly educated, and the unemployed appear to make up a large proportion of the reported 27 per cent.

And it may even be that the rapidly changing demographics will expand the offline community for a few more years, until that portion of society fades away through natural causes and the onliners become the vast majority. But that might take another decade or so.

I don’t think any of this access issue is as big a problem as people fear. If this is the actual digital divide, it almost certainly can’t be fixed quickly if at all, and I would doubt that it is even worth trying. It may just be another problem too far.

In my encounters with the offliners, I find two extreme groups. The resolute, ‘I don’t want to, I have no interest, I don’t see the point, and you can’t make me’ contingent dominate, while the frightened, worried and timid are in the minority. These folks might be helped, but the first group are already lost of their own volition.

The really important issues facing the UK and all Western nations centre on falling education standards, growing skills shortages and a shrinking ability to generate GDP.

Without a healthy, innovative and energetic workforce able to compete on the world market, living standards will decline.

That will have an impact right across societies, reducing the leeway to repair ailing health, care and social programmes. And as we have just witnessed, service economies are the weakest and the first to suffer in any global crisis.

Moving in a new direction will demand a well-educated workforce, able to master new technologies and use them to be increasingly creative. This change will also demand more investment in new industries, new thinking and new organisations. The shift will be on a far bigger scale than the first industrial revolution.

It might therefore make more sense to focus what limited resources are available today on tapping the GDP-generating abilities and opportunities of the digitally connected rather than wasting time and money on the resolutely disconnected.

Not to tap the full capabilities of the willing and able will result in the slow reversal of all the positive trends, on- or offline. And having decisions driven by headlines rather than logic and real need can only further exacerbate the decline in public services and living standards.

None of these problems are new. We have been here many times before with the printing press, weaving loom, production lines and automation.

There are always individuals in any population who choose to turn their back on the future and be determined in their resistance to change.