The internet has massively changed the information landscape. It’s development has led to an explosion in the availability of information. There is more information available to the average citizen now than there has ever been. However, whilst it is accessible for many, there is still a significant proportion of people who either do not have the equipment or the skills required to take advantage of this development.
Take, for example, the most recent Internet Access Quarterly Update for Q4 (note: these figures were taken from Q4 in 2011, see update at the end of this post for more detail) published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). These quarterly reports produce a wealth of information about the state of the digital divide in the UK and if you are interested in understanding the extent of this divide, they make essential reading. Included amongst this report are internet access statistics in relation to age, gender, disability and earnings. If you believe that everyone has access to the internet, these statistics provide a welcome reminder that this is far from the case.
The statistics in relation to earnings particularly demonstrate the extent of the divide between those that can be defined as ‘information rich’ and ‘information poor’. As you can see from the graph below, there is a stark difference between higher and lower wage earners. As you move up the scale from low to high earners, the proportion of those who have never used the internet (not just do not have access at home, but have never even used the internet) drops dramatically. So much so that the proportion of people earning over £800 per week who have never accessed the internet dramatically drops to virtually 0% in each subsequent pay scale.
Now, 8% of low earners may not seem a significant figure, but it is still a sizeable proportion considering this represents a section of society that has never accessed the internet. And when it is compared to the proportion of higher earners it is clear that there is a very substantial divide. But, of course, the higher you go up the payscale the more likely you are to have the funds to be able to afford the equipment. It is particularly easy for higher earners to assume that everyone has access to the internet or has at least used it. After all, if everyone around you is connected, why should you believe that there are people out there who are not? Which perhaps explains why it is always middle-class commentators who argue that libraries are irrelevant in the age of the internet. Their friends all have a connection so of course that means everyone has.
The nature of this divide raises a number of concerns. For example, given that 8% of very low earners have never utilised the internet, what is the likely impact of transferring the benefits process online? In these times of increasing unemployment, this is likely to be a very real issue for many. Whilst assurances are made that a “minority” of claimants will be dealt with face-to-face, can we be sure that those without access will not be severely disadvantaged due to both a lack of access and skills? As I mentioned in a previous post, literacy and numeracy levels are such that, even if access was provided there are still barriers to overcome.
This also raises questions about the programme of library closures that are taking place across the country. For those earning less than £200 per week there are a multitude of concerns that take priority over the ownership of a computer and an internet connection, not least putting food on the table. As long as their gross income remains so low, it is highly unlikely that they are going to invest in the technology required to connect to the internet. Furthermore, given their restrictive budgets, it is highly unlikely that they would be prepared to spend any of their money on making use of high street internet facilities if doing so requires payment, no matter how seemingly insignificant the fee. Which is where libraries come in.
Admittedly, public libraries probably haven’t been as successful as they might be in attracting users from the lower end of the income scale. However, they do provide free internet access (in most cases) and trained staff to support them. For people on such a restrictive budget, the local public library is their best and most feasible means of connecting to the internet. Take that away and there is nothing left for them. Yes they can pay for access via another service provider (as the free market would expect them to), but when you have a choice between paying the bills and putting food on the table or connecting to the internet, it is not hard to see which side they would come down on (despite the economic benefits of access to the internet – which I’ll come to in a later post no doubt!).
The question for public libraries and library authorities is how to address this problem and how to ensure that they do not further exclude entire communities (and yes, it is depressing that this question is still being posed). Closing libraries certainly isn’t the answer and will not only lead to entrenching the digital divide, but will also kick the ladder away for many making it harder for the currently disconnected to join the ranks of the “information rich”. Furthermore, there is a risk of this being entrenched across the generations. As has been demonstrated, children with internet access at home are at a significant advantage to those without, achieving better grades and, therefore, enhancing their prospects. For those on low incomes then, the impact of the divide will also be felt by the next generation, destined to remain excluded from the connected majority, harming their future prospects and consolidating their isolation.
Clearly, if as many as 8% of low earners have never used the internet, public libraries have been unsuccessful in getting this particular section of the community connected. But the failure to attract the socially excluded is something that libraries have particularly struggled with for many years (sub required). Despite the intentions of the People’s Network to connect the socially and digitally excluded, it is clear that many remain excluded. But if libraries are closed, how will this problem be addressed? Will it just result in permanent isolation of the unconnected? Condemning generations to digital exclusion. Shouldn’t more effort be put into public libraries getting the “information poor” connected? And, if so, how? Sophisticated social networking marketing will clearly not have any impact on this section of society. So what strategies can and should be employed? Public libraries are in the ideal position to connect the unconnected. Closing them suggests we have given up and are prepared to accept there will always be the connected and the excluded.
(29/4/2013) This post has attracted a lot of attention on Twitter today due to the changes being made to the benefits system and some statements by Iain Duncan Smith MP. As a result, I wanted to clarify that the figures above were up-to-date at the time of writing, and refer to figures reported by the ONS at the end of 2011. The most recent figures (Q4, 2012) are available here (or see updated chart below). Whilst the figures themselves and the message they convey have not changed significantly (and therefore do not change anything I have said above), I felt it was important to ensure people were aware that these are not the very latest figures and to provide a link to where they can be obtained. As I said, however, the message is the same: many on low incomes have never accessed the internet (around 6% of those earning less than £200 per week – which is around 300,000 people and 5% of those earning between £200-£299 per week). I hope that clarifies the situation as it stands at present.