Friday, 7 August 2009

Refuseniks? More like angst...

Above is the image of the archetypal silver-surfer planning and booking holidays online, chatting on Skype with grandchildren in the far corners of the world and ordering the shopping for home delivery from the supermarket. A cliché, but accurate nevertheless? What is the reality?

The BBC recently published the results of an EU report under the misleading title "Europe's net refuseniks revealed." The first three sentences of the BBC piece are as follows:

The study, which examined the region's [Europe] digital landscape over the last five years, also revealed that more than one in four Europeans had never used a PC. More than one in three of the digital refuseniks said they did not see the need for a connection while nearly one quarter said they could not afford it. People above the age of 65 and the unemployed were the least active online, it said.

There are some strange assumptions here. There is confusion between computer use and internet connection and the rather risky hinted-at extrapolation that PC use means internet use. The word refusenik is a good sub-editor's sound bite - but disguises the full picture. Wikipedia says "Over time, "refusenik" has entered colloquial English usage for any type of protester." The implication of this is that the one in four Europeans who have never used a PC are all protesters who are actively rebutting all efforts to get them online. One in three of these 'protesters' said they didn't see the need and a quarter said they couldn't afford it. So all those who said they couldn't afford it are protesters, are they? Er... perhaps they just can't afford it. There is nothing surprising in the over-65s and the unemployed being the least active. But it doesn't mean they are all 'refuseniks'.

And saying that you 'don't see the need for an internet connection' doesn't make you a protester or refusenik either. Shocking to contemplate for the fully wired and plugged-in digi-addict I know, but it is just possible that lots of people, especially the elderly, genuinely see no need to be online. Shock horror. And there is something else which doesn't seem to be considered by this report: Internet Angst.

This is a subject closely related to a lack of adeptitude (see this previous post) and Future Shock. I am sure that hidden behind the EU report's percentages is a lot of fear - especially among the over 65s - even the ones who do have an internet connection. I have two real examples - elderly people I know well. I won't name them, but I dare say I could without much fear of embarrassment on either side, because - as will be revealed - neither party is very likely to ever read this blog.

The first party is a retired higher education administrator, now in his late 70s. He has had a computer for fifteen years, since just after his retirement, ten with an internet connection which has been broadband for the last 6 years. When he first got the computer he contented himself with household accounts and designing and printing leaflets and notices for both his golf club and Church. However, I remember him telling me (for the first time of many) that he would of course (of course?) limit himself to just a couple of short sessions a week. The implication being that longer exposure than that to the evil monster might seriously damage his health. And when he got a modem he was constantly apologising for, and trying to justify any time he spent online. As far as I can gather he has spent the last ten years sending and receiving a few emails; checking his banking online (yes, he does do that!), and booking a few holidays in classic silver-surfer style. Just a few weeks ago however, I asked him as an aside during a telephone conversation whether he'd like to send me photos of his grandchildren as email attachments. Almost defiantly - it seemed to me - he admitted that he "hadn't plucked up enough courage to try and work out how do that yet." In ten years?!?

The other example is a seventy-year-old former top secretary and PA now retired. Earlier this summer her children, nieces, grandchildren, brothers and sisters - who are spread across three continents - persuaded her to join Facebook after months of resistance on the grounds that she didn't "understand what Facebook is for" and she didn't want "to expose herself to all that sort of stuff." (Huh?) Nevertheless, for a week or two she exchanged messages and looked at posted photos from rellies, which she actually admitted that she enjoyed, but oddly continued to bleat about not understanding what FB was about; stated that the whole thing made her nervous and announced that she would probably delete her account quite soon. Apparently she has done exactly that. At the same time the same group of relatives had been trying to persuade her to sign up to Skype. Total flat refusal with no explanation, despite the fact her telephone bill is always an issue for her.

Why...? What is going on here? These two senior citizens are not stupid. Quite the reverse, and both are very sharp and alert. And they are certainly not alone - these are not isolated examples. Remember, these two people are not true refuseniks, to use the BBC's word: a big part of them wants to be involved with the new digital age and recognises the benefits, or some of them at least. For instance, both my examples have been sending and receiving email for years, despite one of them being unable to make an attachment. There just seems to be an invisible barrier, a mental block, beyond which they fear to tread. I believe that no amount of coaching and cajoling will ever completely eradicate this angst, and the most anyone can do is give people the opportunities to use the new technology. If they don't take them, nobody can force them. And I suspect that with many people the more they are cajoled, the more they back off.

It is well documented that electricity, the telephone, radio and television have all caused comparable anguish in their time. And go back further and a lot of people had problems getting their heads around iron ships and steam power. And millennia ago did some people look at the first wheeled vehicles or men riding horses and shake their heads, scratch their ear nervously and walk away, despite seeing the obvious benefits demonstrated by their neighbours every day?


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