Do we want everyone to get online?

I had a very interesting time at the Digital Evolution unconference and networking evening this week – wonderfully hosted by the Tinder Foundation and Google and with the irrepressible Will Perrin at the helm.

Sadly I couldn’t make it to the proper conference the next day, but the buzz around the event was amazing and Helen Milner and her team can take credit for reinvigorating the conversation around digital inclusion.

Anyway, back to the unconference.

The first discussion I took part in focused on digital policy, particularly from the government side of things, and the question was that posed in the title of this post: do we want everyone to get online?

I’m not sure that we do, at least, not when the question is framed in that way.

Who is ‘we’? Who is ‘everyone’? What is meant by ‘online’?

For me, getting everyone online is not a sensible policy objective. It doesn’t really make an awful lot of sense. Where are the outcomes?

Speaking for myself, I’d like us to have a society where nobody is disadvantaged because they lack the ability to access information or services – whatever the platform.

So for me the emphasis must be on human beings and making their lives better, more fulfilling, and ensuring their interactions with government and businesses are as stress and hassle free as they can be.

The internet is a ever more important platform for the delivery of information and services. However, this doesn’t mean that everyone should be using it for everything. Even if you have great internet access and skills, for some things a non-digital approach might be most appropriate.

The approach I think must always therefore be human-focused, not technology- or organisation-focused, and it should be prioritised so that those with most need are considered first, with all their complexity.

This will mean in future that the role which those currently working in digital inclusion have may shift in future, as access becomes ever closer to universal. There are some really meaty issues to be stuck into particularly around the agendas of wearables and the internet of things.

On the latter point, in the near future might we be in the position where folk are online whether they like it or not, because the paving slab they are stood on is connected to the internet, or the supermarket scans their faces before they even step into the store?

So as well as human-focused, the approach must also be constructively critical. The internet is very good at lots of things. It also brings with it challenges, particularly around privacy, but also around our relationships with organisations, which may come from cultures that do not share many values with our own (Silicon Valley, I’m looking at you).

Digital inclusion folk, by keeping laser focused on the needs of people, and by being healthily sceptical about the potential of technology can, I think, help individuals come to their own decisions about the best way they can make the most of digital and the net.

We don’t want everyone to be online. We want people to be able to make informed choices about how they live their lives, to use the net when they want to, and only when they want to, so that they may act in their own best interests, and of those they care for.

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