The Mountain in Your Back Garden

There’s a mountain that doesn’t stop growing in your back garden. It came overnight and refused to leave. Everyone else is at the top. They didn’t seem to mind when the mountain arrived and they had no issues climbing as it rose beyond your sight. And even though you have all the equipment available to make the climb, you find more and more that the task reaches into the realm of impossibility with each passing day.

Humans are social creatures. We don’t like to be left out or excluded. We don’t like being on the outside of an inside joke, the outside of a group of people, the outside of a society.

As the world ventures further into a digital age, what Marshall McLuhan named the Global Village, we have to know that these inherently human issues of exclusion still exist in a digital world.

It’s an issue I keep in the back of my mind as I watch John Stephens try to teach Norma Zoccali how to insert a picture into a word document. I bite my tongue and try to hold in my frustration as Norma drops the picture into the document and throws her hands into the air as the paragraph of text she just finished tapping out with one index finger splits in two and moves around the screen.

She peers over her glasses in the way reserved for the elderly and turns to John.

“It’s stupid,” she says, “I don’t see why it did that.”

I’m sitting in a small room at COTA WA, in an adult computer literacy lesson being taught by volunteer John. The lessons here teach the basics of computer use, Microsoft Word, Google, folders and files, the things many of us learnt at school or that have just come naturally.

But it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. For some people, digital immigrants, the digital divide is a gap that is proving increasingly difficult to get out of.

“It used to be that we accepted people,” Adele Ganzer, another of John’s students, says, “we accept people for so many different things, but when it comes to using computers, we’re all supposed to be at the same level and it’s unfair.”

Adele’s comments ring true. In our modern world the use of computers and the internet has become less of a luxury and more of a necessity. Entire jobs are performed through computers, communication is almost all electronic, government agencies have cut funding to physical service centres in favour of online services.

And yet, even though about 85 per cent of Australian homes have access to the internet, an entire three million strong section of society comprises those who are in the wrong socio-economic class, the wrong generation, or living with set of circumstances that make it impossible to fully take advantage of the online world that makes the physical world run.

Rural communities, elderly people, disabled people, economically disadvantaged people, entire sections of Australian life are being left behind as the world runs on ahead to a place that seems to swim in benefits.

I was surprised to learn that less than half of all people aged 65 or older use the internet, especially when compared to the fairly small range of 15-17-year-olds where 98.7% of the demographic use the internet.

If you’re asking yourself, like I did, why isn’t something being done about this issue? Then you’d be right to ask. I asked too, and when I researched I found that there were people looking into it.

The Australian Digital Inclusion Index was founded in 2014 by research partners of Telstra, RMIT University and the Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne, from data collected by Roy Morgan. The index set out to find out who is being left behind and what can be done about it.

“You can see that the overall score for Australia’s level of digital inclusion has gone up slightly over the past year, but then if you look into it deeply you can see that some groups have gone far ahead and other groups are still lagging,” Julie tells me.

Julie Tucker is a Phd student at Swinburne University and she has been working closely with her peers on the ADII. I ask her what she thinks the results will show in the coming years.

“I think the danger is that because digital divide maps so closely over to the socioeconomic divide, if the level of inequality in Australia continues to increase, then the digital divide will probably track alongside of that, in fact there’ll be a group which is really significantly excluded.”

“So do you see a time when the divide will close up?” I ask.

“There will obviously be a generation of digital natives growing up and they will be more included and the older people will eventually die out,” Julie pauses for a moment, “which is a harsh way to say it but there you go.”

“So is it mainly the elderly?”

“Well look, there is an age thing but underneath that there’s still structural issues so even younger people are being excluded. Digital inclusion isn’t just an add-on, I can’t see the digital divide disappearing in the very near future.”

It isn’t just the elderly, as I mentioned before. There are huge groups of people that are not elderly who find themselves on the wrong side of the divide. Even in the cities, where the iPhone and the desk job reign supreme, there are visible symptoms of the divide.

“I have had to learn to mould my advice and recommendations not just based on the needs of the business and the funds available, but also based on the location, the tech savviness of internal staff, and the types of customers the client business deals with.”

Peter is a digital strategist I contacted to find out whether he had encountered any issues with his business thanks to the digital divide.

“What I am finding is that technology is growing too fast for businesses and consumers to keep up with. Savvy businesses embrace the new digital modalities, but unfortunately this can cause a gap between them and their consumers/audience as the technology is too far ahead for the average person.”

It’s easy to see that Peter has been affected by the divide. He is at the top of the mountain, able to walk freely across the peak with no blockage, but even he is finding it difficult. If those on the correct side of the divide are feeling the pressure, then those on the wrong side must have it tripled.

Even later, when Peter told me that despite his profession and his relatively dystopian assessment of the future we are heading for, he tells me he one day wants to live a life away from technology. He tells me that there is too much information available to governments and corporations these days, and that he hopes to explore a global world outside of that.

I agree that this sounds far preferable to a world resembling an Orwellian novel, but ask if that dream is becoming less realistic as our world becomes entwined with the digital.

“Without a doubt,” he tells me, “we will not be truly global until digital is the norm.”

Julie too has become acutely aware of the issues surrounding the growth of the internet. She can see that people being left out of the online world is a problem, she can see that there are potential downsides to our aim for increased connectivity, but actually knowing what to do about it differs greatly from being able to recognise it.

“The only thing I would say about remedying the deepening divide, with those groups who are significantly excluded, and we know it tracks along socioeconomic and age and also disability, that any programs designed to address that group have to be explosive- not explosive- well, yes explosive, because you do have to somehow get these people connected.”

Which highlights the biggest issue that faces anybody trying to bridge the digital divide; if those people left behind don’t have the means or the desire to climb the mountain, something needs to be done to help them up.

I had to go through the Department of Immigration website with a fine tooth comb to find a piece of information I needed. After that I discovered that further information was only available over the phone or in person. I was heading into the city anyway so I thought I’d pop in and see if I could get any help. After waiting in line for as long as my visa had left I finally got the front and was promptly told that there was a computer in the corner I could use to look up any information I needed.

I’m pretty tech savvy. Being from England I also speak fluent English, and was one hundred percent sure I had already looked through every possible relevant page on the website. I can’t imagine what that must be like for a non-English speaker, or a person who struggles to use Google to find banana cake recipes, let alone navigate the complex web of a government designed website.

“All the things like Centre link are online now so if the government are expecting people who are using human services to do it online they have to work on inclusion,” Julie says.

“That’s been the separation because the government’s gone full steam ahead with digitalizing all their services but their clients aren’t necessarily up with the program.”

I remembered watching Norma and Adele struggling with Microsoft Word, a program I have been able to use since I was six, and I think about how they told me they struggled to work out how to put their pensions through each fortnight.

“We wouldn’t give a toddler an axe to cut up a log and just leave it to it,” John says, laughing, “They either need to make the services easier or they need to provide proper training.”

John is right. The services either need to become far more accessible for people, or the people need to be given the training to use the services. A short term investment in either one would have huge economic advantages for Australia. Those who are connected online are included in our world, they need not rely on what are fast becoming remnants of the old world, they are active members of our society.

So whether it is a case of sending a few people down from the top of the mountain to lay out ropes and ladders for those at the bottom, or whether it is bringing the village closer to the ground. The digital divide needs to close and the mountain in the back of the garden needs to have everyone at the summit.