What’s the point of digital inclusion?

coloured-cablesSeventy per cent of people aged over 65 in the UK have never used the internet. In a time when personal communication, social networking and the supply of services is being revolutionized by technology, older people are being largely excluded. The Government is concerned enough about this to have introduced a panoply of initiatives to overcome digital exclusion, many of which are aimed directly at older people. But the dominant reason older people say they don’t take up or haven’t sought access to the internet is that they don’t feel they need it.

Technology is a funny thing; it’s often not until it’s in the hands of users that its potential becomes apparent. The developers of mobile phones didn’t expect SMS messaging to become so central to the way that phones were used; when they developed the technology, they didn’t really know what it was for. Nor did they anticipate that trades in airtime in Africa would develop into a form of banking. Technology by itself is fundamentally uninteresting. It’s only when it gets taken up, shared, exploited and adapted that it becomes exciting.


Independent Age report (download)

Older people are stuck in a kind of Catch 22 with the internet: they don’t see the need for it, so don’t use it, so can’t share and develop its possibilities, so they don’t see the need for it. Before my mother ever went online, she said she didn’t want a technology that would isolate her further from the world. It was difficult for her to believe that tapping out emails to her friends and her daughters and grandchildren didn’t have to replace face-to-face contact, but could enable and enhance it.

A new report from Independent Age and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Older people, technology and community, addresses this problem, arguing powerfully that digital inclusion for its own sake is pointless. The authors’ research suggests that older people frequently believe they have nothing to gain from the internet. Resistance to new technology is exacerbated by marketing that is either aimed at the young or at the frail elderly, a group with which few people identify; by poor design (again, either aimed at the young, or involving ‘special’ equipment for older users which tends to be ugly); and by other anxieties about cost and security.

Independent Age’s research shows that older people are perfectly capable of learning to use technology. It also reports an interesting experiment carried out by OFCOM: after showing older people who were resistant to the internet a five-minute video of what they could do if they were connected, there was a significant drop in the numbers saying they would gain nothing by access to the web.

It is increasingly well documented that social isolation is one of the most pressing issues facing older people, not least because of the detrimental effects it can have on health and wellbeing. In the report, Kevin Johnson of Cisco is quoted as saying:

Technology isn’t the thing we want older people to access (or anyone else for that matter) – it is the services and capabilities and experiences that technology can enable.

Independent Age concludes that more programmes should target the interests and experiences of older people, rather than merely focusing on getting them in a position to use kit. Older people will be enthused by technology if they see that it gives them opportunities to connect with others and participate. Yet relatively few of the current programmes designed to overcome digital exclusion use technology to help older people renew or develop social contacts, or actively engage in their communities.

In addition, older people need ongoing support with their online activity, a continued human element. My mum got the point of her computer when she went for a series of one-to-one sessions at the Apple store. She had some of her tutorials sitting alongside her nine year-old grandson. It was clear that the two of them were learning in different ways (my mum took notes) and seeing different possibilities. But they definitely were both seeing possibilities, and my mum loved the attention and thoughtfulness of the young people teaching her; she also loved the learning.

The conclusion of the Independent Age report is that technology cannot replace human contact. If that is what it is perceived to be offering, it will be resisted, and properly. That would be the wrong sell, in any case, because we know technology is often the means of facilitating human contact. If programmes to get older people online are to succeed, they have to start not from kit but from people. They have to begin not with what younger people imagine the old might gain on some notional sunlit technological upland, but with their current interests, what they want and need to do here and now.


11 thoughts on “What’s the point of digital inclusion?

  1. So true! My father won’t even plug in my mother’s mobile phone incase somehow, by doing so, he would be infected by a technology that in his view leads to constant superveillance. A man who spent his working life on the telephone regards mobiles as a step too far. As a family we struggle to work out how to encourage him online – is 80 too old to learn something new? We think we know he’d love it but would he? Does everyone have to go digital?


    • Are mobiles really watching us? I will have to be more careful. Seriously, I am convinced 80 isn’t too old to learn something new if you can see the point of it. Unfortunately, unless you’re some sort of coding whizz, you need to be shown as well. My mind goes limp at the mention of online help. Unless someone actually explains a hash tag in words of one syllable, it’s quite difficult to work out what it is.


  2. Great blog Geraldine, that brings out probably THE most fundamental issues – that what we’re talking about is how can use some of today’s communication possibilities to enable people to connect, interact and enrich their and others’ lives in desirable, easy ways?

    I just came off a video call this morning with a lady (in Melbourne), Pamela Bruder, with the wonderful title of “Life enrichment co-ordinator”. There too (in Amsterdam) was an equally inspiring man, Wytse Miedema. The two of them, locally, are seeing how enabling the sharing of PASSIONS with others (eg music) can enrich lives for older citizens and those around them…with corresponding value for their communities – socially and economically.

    The Dutch work (through their ‘Verzilvering’ programme) is seeing how today’s new video possibilities can bring together people who would otherwise be constrained by distance or personal mobility. They and their Oz oppos – aged 60-87, in all states of health and cognitive ability – are now getting excited about joining forces for a global sing-song. “The very idea is bringing huge excitement and enjoyment” was one of the comments.. with the enabling technology completely forgotten about.

    THAT’s what it’s all about! Desireable outcomes – the ability to add to life pleasure in easier, more satisfying ways, whether that’s socially, family-wise, through being able to work, volunteer, indulge in educational passions ..or whatever. This for me is the essence of Independent Age/Gulbenkian report, which I had the pleasure of being involved with, and which I’m really glad to see you bring out the nub of – and add to – so clearly. Best regards, Kevin


    • Thanks, Kevin! I’d really like to know more about this global sing song. I do love a sing song and it’s quite difficult to get them nowadays. The idea of singing with people all around the world is brilliant. And how gratifying to be a life enrichment coordinator!


  3. Oh dear….I am clearly not in the zone. My heart sinks a little at the idea of people singing infront of computer screens in a 21st century version of the east end singalong. But then it took me a long time, and a Yorkshire Airways spoof, to even vaguely get the idea of You Tube. I guess that highlights the fabulous thing about technology and why Geraldine’s point about it starting with the people not the tech is so fundamental. Where my enthusiasm wilts at the idea of a sing song, I know that streaming school concerts to my parents home so they could watch their grandson in London from the comfort of Yorkshire would be great. How do we encourage older people to imagine what technology could do for them so that techie whizz kids can translate that into reality when they don’t interact enough with technology to understand its potential. There is a reason Facebook was invented by an 18 year old student……..


  4. I am an East Ender! I spent my childhood singing in big groups round a piano – so singing round a computer makes perfect sense to me, as long as there are enough other people doing it to hide my terrible voice.


  5. Vicki – far from sitting around a computer screen, the whole idea of the Dutch work (which is in the city of Almere, near Amsterdam), is to get people out of the house, coming together in a community hall, meeting each other, sharing banter, soup, a passion, having fun. In this case its around music – around a piano like Geraldine’s East end memories. No piano player? No problem – press a button, connect your group with friends the other side of the city who do have one (via a big, life-size screen, linked by the internet), add in some cross-city banter and community spirit whilst you’re at it.

    This is desirable stuff, giving new possibilities and stimulii that weren’t there before. They’ve formed a group – the Young at Heart choir – to do cross-city rock and roll! There’s lively 65 years olds who’re dancing away, and a near-blind 87 woman who just sits, smiles, and mouths some of the words. “This has given me a new purpose to life” was one recent comment – and that’s just music; they’re now about to start experimenting with a popular keep-fit class for ladies over 65, that’s constrained by lack of tutors (one tutor run two classes via video, with added fun and interaction for the participants thrown in? Use the same community asset for other desireable and useful purposes? The main thing – reduce the constraints of distance or personal mobility).

    You might want to have a look at their web-site. It’s mostly in Dutch, they’re just starting on the Pilot project (big public launch this Friday in fact), but there’s an English page too, an increasing number of ‘fly-on-the-wall’ videos which will track their progress, and one from their impressive mayor, in English http://www.almerekennisstad.nl/verzilvering/english/ageing-well-in-almere


  6. That was remarkable – not sure how many women could manage that particular demonstration! Wonder if she made it back up?


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