Last year I signed up to be a Champion for the Infoxchange National Year of Digital Inclusion initiative, which seeks to raise awareness of the one-in-five Australian adults who are not yet online. As such I’ve been seeking out opportunities to discuss this issue, and seek out solutions.
Yesterday’s Communities accessing Technology Forum in Geelong was a great opportunity to so exactly that, as it bought together representatives from across local government and community services along with other interested parties to learn about and discuss digital inclusion. As the MC I was also asked to give a brief opening address, and I’ve pasted in the text below.
Communities accessing Technology Digital Inclusion Forum
The Importance of Digital Inclusion
I’ve been lucky to spend the last two decades studying the impact of technology on business, society and individuals. I’ve seen the pitfalls and the benefits, and I’d have to say the benefits easily outweigh the negatives.
To write about technology is to live somewhat in the future. But to quote the science fiction author William Gibson, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.
I’d like to alter Gibson’s words today in the context of digital inclusion, to say that while the benefits of digital technology are here, those benefits are not evenly distributed.
We’ve long spoken of the concept of a digital divide, where society is classed into two classes of haves and have-nots – the information rich and information poor.
I’d also like to re-categorise that divide along the lines of the ‘access rich’ and the ‘access poor’, as being a participant in the digital age is about more than information. It is about access to services, on a 24/7 basis.
The divide can also be categorised from the perspective of skills. Without the skills necessary to act in a digital world, then the benefits of digital will also remain out of reach.
Today around one in five Australians do not have access to the benefits of digital services – that’s an estimated 1.1 million adults who have never accessed the internet. Throughout Australia there are pockets of society that the digital revolution has not yet touched – especially the age bracket of 65 and over, with 32 per cent not going online. For other groups the barriers are in terms of affordability, or access to infrastructure based on geography.
You’ll hear more stories later today on why this situation emerges, and about the factors that are creating these new classes of the access rich and the access poor. You’ll also be hearing success stories from those who are finding ways to tear down these barriers, and of programs that are designed to build on these successes to build a more digitally-inclusive society?
I’ve devoted a good part of the last few years exploring these issues, as a Champion for the Infoxchange National Year of Digital Inclusion initiative, and as an Ambassador for the Broadband for the Bush Alliance Forum. I’ve appreciated hearing stories firsthand from those who are living on the network’s fringe, such as how their kids’ education suffers when it rains, as the satellite signal can’t get through the rainclouds.
I spent last week in central west Queensland running a digital strategy workshop for the Queensland Government’s Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation, working with small business owners to help them plot their own path forward.
The lesson that emerged for me was the importance of having skills resident in the local community. It struck me that the best solutions to the issues of digital inequality in society are those that are community led.
So I want to emphasise the importance of having community leaders who participate as role models, espousing their beliefs, and also enacting them. For a community to move forward it must be able to see the role models that are leading it forward, otherwise the concepts can be rejected.
But why is this important? Its my view that access to the digital world is becoming one of the key determinants of success in modern life, alongside other basic but essential services such as healthcare and education.
To live in this world without access to digital services is to live a life that is drifting farther and farther from mainstream society. The digital world provides access to a raft of services that are otherwise unattainable, in education, employment opportunities, and the the social fabric of society.
That list is constantly expanding, as more and more services migrate online. The current push by governments to a ‘digital first’ stance will only serve to highlight the disadvantages of not being online.
These changes on the whole will benefit society, but will these benefits be available to the whole of society?
Ultimately, that’s up to us.