It seems there is hardly a day, week, or month that has not been adopted by some charity or campaign in a crusade for or against whatever cause célèbre or bête noire takes its particular fancy.
And this week in the UK it is “Get Online Week.”
According to Race Online 2012, the organization run by UK Digital Champion Martha Lane-Fox, approximately 9 million Brits have never been online and -- shock-horror! -- their lives are generally blighted and worthless as a result, with the elderly making up the largest proportion of the digitally excluded.
Despite being a bit of a media hound, I was blissfully unaware that it was such an auspicious week until my mother phoned on Monday with her usual list of requests for the week ahead: Could I walk the dogs on Tuesday, give her a lift somewhere in three weeks time, order some books from Amazon, find a radio-controlled Spitfire for her grandson, and last, but not least, buy her a computer?
“Why a computer?”
“Everything’s on the Internet now, and I can’t go on without one.”
“But you don’t have broadband. Without that, a computer is a glorified word-processor.”
“Doesn’t the computer come with the Internet?”
I have to say I was quite impressed by my brief explanation as to the mechanics of computing and the World Wide Web, apparently completely understandable to a late septuagenarian.
But, inevitably, my life as a 24-hour technical helpline will now extend beyond its current purview of TV, VCR, DVD, and light bulbs, as my mother crosses the digital divide that she, and many of her contemporaries, have been unaware of until now.
Though, ironically, it will take rather more than a week to get her online.
But behind all this flippancy there is a serious question: Will putting the elderly online improve the quality of their lives?
There is no doubt that the government and its associated digital champions, tsars, or whatnots believe so. They are moving inexorably to place more and more information and services online -- services they would like to see exclusively available via the Internet, were it not for the poverty or stubbornness of those who remain on the wrong side of the digital tracks.
There is also no question about the benefits that email, Skype, et al. provide for older people to keep in touch with children, grandchildren, and others, especially when families are dispersed around the globe.
But when it comes to their everyday lives, the benefits to the elderly of the Internet are distinctly nebulous.
Primarily, there is the cost to consider.
A basic laptop or desktop will set you back at least £300 (US$480) and BT’s lowest price for an Internet connection is currently £23.50 ($37) per month, for which my mother will get a “broadband” speed of 512kbit/s.
Further, the basic state pension in the UK is currently just under £98 ($155) per week for a single person, or £156 ($248) for a couple, which is not a vast sum in the developed world by anyone’s calculation. And once you deduct housing, heating, food, etc., there isn't much scope for exploring the wonders of the Web.
More importantly -- and this is not just an issue for pensioners -- by moving access to, and delivery of, essential information and services online, the opportunities for vital physical human interaction become far fewer.
As much as we may scoff at old people for cluttering up the reception areas, queues, and aisles of doctors’ surgeries, bus stops, and post offices, to many of the elderly these are crucial occasions to meet up with their fellow pensioners and, sadly, some of the few opportunities they have for seeing anyone at all during their day.
Whilst this situation is a critique of our society in general, it is something that access to the Internet will do nothing to alleviate.
— James Lambie is the Producer/Director of the online documentary series "Web Wide World" on Internet Evolution.