The net is not just for the young

Helping older people get online is vital, and part of a wider transformation, says Bill Thompson.

Silver surfer

It’s Silver Surfers’ Day on May 21st and over one thousand five hundred events will be taking place across the UK offering older people a gentle introduction to using a computer and getting online in supportive and friendly settings like UK Online Centres, libraries and Age Concern branches.

The organisers have persuaded Dame Vera Lynn to record a video message encouraging people to learn how to download music, while Terry Wogan has been telling everyone who will listen that “it’s so easy that any old Janet and John could get online”.

This sort of familiarisation is vitally important because there are many people out there who either think computers and the internet are too complicated for them to use or simply can’t see why they are of any interest.

Important skills

Showing people what’s possible and explaining how they can use the network to do things they want to do anyway, like find the songs they remember or send old photos to family members, is a great way of bringing down the barriers.

Many of the events will use material from a special website called “On the Day”, which covers important skills like how to e-mail, scan and upload photos, place an online order and listen to music. The site aims to presents the tasks in a way that will make it relevant to older people.

Bill Thompson

We should not compromise on the quality of the public services we deliver, and nobody must be left behind when they are offered online

Bill Thompson

Silver Surfers’ Day has been going since 2001, and I’ve been a supporter for many years. I remember when Digital Unite, the organisers, called themselves “Hairnet” in a jokey reference to their target audience.

But this year it has a special relevance to me, as I’ll be fifty in October and with my white beard and greying hair I’ll qualify as a silver surfer myself.

Even though I’m slightly outside their target audience for basic computer skills, since I’ve been working in the computing industry and as a technology writer for nearly thirty years, my support for their work is undiminished.

This is because we need to ensure that older people are comfortable with computers and the network, otherwise we will never be able to claim we live in a “Digital Britain”.

This matters especially now, as with a new government in place there is bound to be a shift in priorities over the Digital Britain agenda.

The Liberal Democrat leadership is under pressure to revisit the Digital Economy Act, which was rushed into law just before Parliament was dissolved and widely criticised for being poorly-considered and damaging to the network economy rather than supportive of it.

Arguments revisited

So we may have the opportunity to revisit some of the arguments that took place earlier in the year.

There will be less money to spend on social goods, and even though the argument for funding digital inclusion projects is strong because of the economic return they can generate, we can anticipate significant funding reductions.

And if attempts to restore economic confidence are unsuccessful then people will have less money to spend online, making it harder for online businesses to thrive and grow, reducing the attractiveness of online services and creating a dangerous downward spiral.

However the benefits of ensuring that everyone in the UK has full access to the network, knows how to use the core services and is given whatever assistance they need in terms of special equipment or training to ensure that their access is real rather than just possible, are enormous.

One of the most important things that the new government could do with its services is to break away from the idea that each department or ministry has “a website” that is a gateway to the “real” department behind it.

This is the sort of thinking that businesses abandoned years ago.

Amazon simply is its website, and the Guardian is an online news service that also prints a daily paper. If we required government departments like Revenue and Customs to act in this integrated way then it might be able to perform its role far more effectively.

But we can only do this if almost everyone is able and willing to access these services online, so that the costs of supporting those who are simply unable to do so are manageable.

We should not compromise on the quality of the public services we deliver, and nobody must be left behind when they are offered online.

But the time has surely come to switch the default assumption about how services are offered, and make the investment in training, network access into all areas of the UK and appropriate support for those unable to be online.

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