Thursday, May 30, 2024
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Wrong side of the great digital divide


‘SORRY, you’re not on our books’, said a voice from among the girls huddled behind the front desk in my hairdresser’s. ‘You didn’t confirm by text.’

‘I’ve been a customer here for six years,’ I pleaded, but the appointment was off and they couldn’t offer me another.

I called on a neighbour aged 95, who waved a two-page letter from the Co-op telling her she couldn’t redeem her dividend of £5, which had probably taken years to accrue, without a smartphone. I realised dismally that although born 30 years apart, we were connected in a generational struggle. It’s even got a name: ‘The grey digital divide’.

‘Mobile’ used to be associated with walking frames and stairlifts. Now it means the necessity of carrying a phone everywhere simply to manage the basic business of life. This year, my neighbour had to apply specifically for a paper census form, or rather I did as no one at National Statistics answered the phone. I can see the benefits of this shift, noticeable since the pandemic – it’s now possible to buy a car online from a well-spoken robot rather than facing a dissembling oik. I was pleased when my decorator asked to be paid by BACS transfer rather than cash (it signified honesty), but for many of us, the rapid change has meant loss.

I made my annual submission to the RA Summer Show, digital since 2014. A line of hopeful artists no longer straggles through Burlington Gardens in the sun, chatting and exchanging addresses. I used to get postcards from people I met there asking if I’d been accepted. I’m now resigned to sitting alone, sending digital images. The quality of my photography is now as important as the painted work. 

More seriously thousands of people have lost their jobs as it’s cheaper for companies to cut down on staff who previously printed out menus and answered phones, and the benefits of this economic and cultural shift often exclude the elderly. I assume that the Co-op know that many older customers will be unable to get their money, and just don’t care.

A recent German study shows that the elderly play a minor role in research on internet usage. New apps are not aimed at them. Age UK estimate that of two million over-75s, fewer than half use a computer. Of those only a quarter are using the internet more since the pandemic, while nearly one in ten are using it less, perhaps owing to lack of ‘support’ from relatives. In the US 94 per cent of those under 50 have a mobile, but only just over half of over-65s. Without social media they are excluded from banking, business, shopping, health information, entertainments, booking hotels and rail tickets. They’re often unable to use good old cash as bank branches disappear in even the busiest cities. Even trips to the ‘recyling centres’ have to be booked online after showing proof of identity via a passport, bill or driving licence. Residential parking has gone that way too, with parking services departments closed in favour of AI. 

Some people suspect a massive conspiracy as many of us have become addicted to the internet since the lockdown. It has often been our main source of information and human contact, and it’s alarming to think about how much information ‘they’ now hold on our individual lives, particularly how, when and where we choose to spend our money. What Conan Doyle once called ‘an all-controlling intelligence’, referring to Prussian militarism, is now an amorphous global network. The new Covid test demanded in airports, costing nearly £200, is available online only, using a mobile, adding for some to the feeling of being trapped, controlled and exploited.

Motorists are already digitally coerced. They may soon be reading novels as they zip around in driverless cars, but woe to any of the 12.9million with a diesel engine trying to use the London South Circular or anyone entering a ‘low emission zone’ without a smartphone with which to pay the £15-a-day tax.

This cultural change has split those born before and after SMS. The majority of ‘Baby Boomers’ born immediately post-war didn’t have internet use until they were middle-aged. There was none in school or for half their working lives. Those born between 1965 and 1977 didn’t have regular internet access or mobiles during their first 12 years in employment. Generation 1978-1980 joined the workforce as the internet became widely available. Millennials starting work in 1999 were all online and toting smart phones. ‘Boomers’ now have grandchildren in ‘Generation Z’, born since the advent of the internet, who don’t remember a time when information came from textbooks, novels, comics, newspapers, BBC radio and three TV channels.

The Zs are swamped in ‘facts’ and misinformation at the touch of a button, plus pornography, coercion into ‘sexting,’ 24-hour bullying and the clarion call of identity politics. As a response the integrity of ‘facts’ has changed, taught as only as relative and subjective, mutable according to immediate needs. These ‘digital natives’ have expertise in handling information online way beyond their elders, and communicate in a new language, without adverbs but with a rash of randomly invented, often violent verbs and myriad mysterious acronyms. Texting has made it quaint to write or talk in sentences.

The elderly are an obstacle to the rapid development of this ‘Information Society’ which also promises to remove the old social barriers with its e-based services; after all robots, so far, come without class, race or sex, now called ‘gender’. Old crocks left behind will find a drop in their living conditions as they become more helpless, confused and isolated. It’s unlikely that, unless like many of the ‘vaccine hesitant’ they are in the black and Asian community, they will attract local authority or government support to get them back into the mainstream of life. They are unrepresented by any furious identity group. The only solution is some enterprising person setting up an agency, perhaps called ‘Universal Grandchildren’, sending out teams of kind, patient young people to visit the elderly and get them online, or do essential digital tasks for them. That might also help breach the yawning generational gap: appointments made by land line, payment in cash, custard creams and cups of tea.

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Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly was a journalist with the Daily Mail for fifteen years. She now writes for the Spectator and the Salisbury Review.

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