The Internet for all – pie in the sky?

Dot-com millionaire Martha Lane Fox  is heading a think-tank, the Digital Inclusion Task Force, with the aim of getting all those people online who are currently, well, not. The idea that everyone wants to be online, and would benefit substantially from it if they were, is, at heart, unmitigated crap.

There’s a problem with that seriously half-assed idea – many people are not online because they simply can’t afford to be, whether or not the want to be. So who pays to get them – and keep them – online? Hey, don’t look at me!

And a hell of a lot more don’t want to be online at any price, not even if you put a gun to their heads, not to mention a load more who are technophobic, technologically illiterate and/or functionally illiterate. You can’t, of course, use a computer if you can’t read. Well, you can, to a degree, but you’re not going to get very far just clicking on dinky little pictures.

What we need first is research to see how many people not currently online really want to be – I sincerely doubt that the figure is as high as the DITF thinks. But for the have-nots who are deprived for financial reasons, the question of who pays – and carries on paying, presumably – needs to be addressed.

I pay for my broadband service out of my disability benefit (or I have done in the past; having just turned 65 it now comes out of my pension and my DLA), the same way I bought my PCs over the years. They – my PC and broadband service – are not luxuries, but vital tools without which I simply couldn’t function. I have no interest whatsoever in paying anything towards anyone else’s costs – I have a hard enough time paying my own –  so don’t even think of a levy on those already online, OK, Ms. Lane Fox?

And who teaches the technologically illiterate? I taught myself, but I accept that not everyone has that ability, so that needs to be addressed too – you can’t simply drop a broadband-connected PC in someone’s lap and simply leave them to it. Not everyone has the ability to teach, either. I once eavesdropped on a local council instructor, running a class in the library – he spent half an hour telling a bemused group of people how to change the colour of hyperlinks in IE, a more futile exercise than that it would be hard to find.

As for the technophobic, leave them be, because it’s never going to work.

Lane Fox believes that people on benefits will, erm, benefit from being online. I’m sure they will, but not in the way she imagines – she’s totally convinced that being online will automatically save these people zillions of pounds. Sorry, babe, but it just ain’t so.

All the benefits she believes will follow from PC ownership and a broadband connection, they can already get for free using a public service at the local library, for example, should they wish to make the effort. Expanding those services to accommodate the have-nots is probably the most cost-effective solution.

Why? Simple, it would be grossly unfair on people such as me (and I don’t for one moment think I’m unique), who have struggled to fund their own PC and broadband service for so long, if the government were to provide computers and connections (and lessons, too, presumably), for those deemed too poor to do it themselves, and a levy on those already online, to fund the exercise, would be equally unfair for much the same reason.

This is not the same as providing aid and succour in an emergency situation – no-one ever died for lack of a computer (OK, someone, somewhere, probably has – just stay with me). The lives of disabled people who are completely or partially housebound would be immeasurably improved by having a computer and broadband. I know mine is, so would I support free computers and broadband for them? No, I don’t think I would, not universally anyway. You can’t simply foist a broadband-connected PC on somebody and just walk away – there has to be a support system in place. However, I think the whole question of freebies is one fraught with danger, not least because it would require a never-ending commitment, because people who can’t afford computers can’t afford to upgrade them, and are unlikely to have the knowledge needed to fix them when they go wrong (and I know from experience, helping to fix problems, that people with little knowledge can be amazingly creative when it comes to screwing-up their PCs). Free PCs and free broadband represent the pouring of money into a pit that has no bottom, pretty much forever, and I don’t see that it’s the job of government to do that.

But to get back to the perceived benefits of online shopping (two examples lane Fox gives, holidays and insurance, are facile – people too poor to afford computers and broadband are probably too poor to afford holidays and insurance, too), I’ve been shopping online for pretty much as long as it’s been possible to do so and, currently, I buy everything but food online (and that I order online only when I’m too ill to shop in person). I shop online because I have to, but I know from experience that if I had to buy in the (mythical) High Street, by exercising the same kind of care I do online, I can pay just as little – or as much there.

Buying online isn’t cheaper automatically, just because it’s online, – you have to work at it, the same as you do when buying out in the real world – the only guaranteed saving is on shoe leather.

Online vendors, it’s true, often have lower overheads than real-world retailers, and sometimes these saving are passed on to the customer. And sometimes they’re not. And all too often, people selling online are staggeringly expensive, and how they survive in the face of so much competition I have no idea, but survive they do, which suggests an awful lot of people are too dumb or too lazy to shop around even online, which takes as close to zero effort as you can get. Sending an Internet newbie to shop online will likely result in them spending more money, not less, until they find their way around – and that takes time.

If the government should fund computers and Internet access for those who can’t afford their own (and if they do, I want my share of the same cake, thank you so much – like everyone on benefits, I live in poverty), shopping online will not turn their lives around. In the short term, at least, it will likely cause them serious problems because, when you buy online you incur delivery charges, and if people are too poor to buy their own PC and broadband, they’re very unlikely to have enough money for online shopping to do them anything but harm. The delivery charges will hack lumps out of their very limited budgets.

Someone is bound to post a comment telling me where there’s free delivery. Yes, I know, as well as you do, but I also know that overall, delivery costs are increasing rapidly, and with the unions about to destroy Royal Mail, they are going to rocket. For example,  I buy my supplements online, and just a few months ago it was free; now it costs about £2.30 for postage. And about £7 by courier. And soon, in all probability, couriers are all there’ll be. Competition may drive down prices in the long term, but in the short term, at least, it’s going to hurt. And those currently offering free delivery tend to use Royal Mail, so that’ll change too…

Grocery shopping online brings it’s own special difficulties. For example, if you can afford to spend £100 on online groceries at Sainsbury’s, they’ll deliver free. If you’re a singleton, like me, and that’s way more than you need, or you just can’t afford to buy that much, they’ll charge you from £3.50 to £5.50 for the privilege, more if you spend less than £40*, which I think is entirely wrong. And I also know that, when grocery-shopping online, there’s often a tendency to buy more than you actually need to justify the delivery charge – an easy trap for a novice to fall into.

*Sainsbury’s website says “Delivery Information – Get free delivery on orders over £100 delivered on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. You could still get delivery from £3.50 when you spend just £40. Orders below £40 will be delivered for a £6 charge.

Presumably if you book, say, a £3.50 time-slot, they just jack up the price to £6.00 if you spend less than £40. Which is why I use Tesco. I have, by the way, challenged Sainsbury’s to justify this – never got a reply, though.

The Digital Inclusion Task Force, I’m afraid, needs to think long and hard about what it is they’re trying to accomplish, because just getting people online, as an end in itself, is a deeply-flawed concept. The situation is likely to prove a lot more complex than Lane Fox seems to think it is – it’s not simply a case of the haves and the have-nots –there are probably some very good reasons for those people not being online who aren’t and, as I’ve said, it’s not all about money. Let’s get some facts before launching a crusade, starting with a survey to find out how many people not currently online actually, genuinely, want to be. Without the offer of freebies, which would distort the figures.

You can read Lane Fox’s Guardian interview here (read the comments, tooif the one from LePendu looks familiar, it should – that’s me). It covers far more than shopping, of course, but I chose that as an indicator that all is not well with her ambitions, and because it was something of which  I have in-depth knowledge. To cover it all in detail I’d be  researching and writing for a week.

You’ll see, though, that dishing out free PCs isn’t entirely beyond the bounds of probability, but ignores the ongoing cost of staying online (not a lot, true, if you shop around, but for that you need to be already online, or at least have access to a computer, and be savvy enough to use it properly).  The more I read, though, the more I think the whole idea is simply crackers.

Footnote: Jeremy Vine is about to discuss this subject in his own technophobic way on Radio 2 (seriously, you’d expect someone in such technologically-intense media as TV and radio to be more savvy), and he’s complaining about trying – and failing – to buy a camera online. Which demonstrates the problems for newbies perfectly. Oh, and if you’re buying anything like a camera, you must do your research first, and remember, dissatisfied customers are vociferous, satisfied customers tend to stay quiet, so a preponderance of negative reviews doesn’t necessarily mean a bad product – just the inept failing to use a good product properly, quite often.


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