Jayne Dowle: Digital revolution risks a great divide

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I’VE just had a vision of the future. It wasn’t exactly a bolt of lightning, but it was almost as quick. I’ve paid my car tax online and it was a revelation. Remember the old days when you had to trek to the post office, stand in line, realise you had forgotten the MOT certificate, then have to go back home again and start again?

They’re over. All I had to do was sit at the kitchen table with the laptop, follow a series of steps and – hey presto – it was done for another year. It even checks the MOT status electronically. And to make my life even more complete, I’ve even managed to set it up with a direct debit. For just a nominal charge, I can divide the three-figure sum into 12 easy-to-digest monthly payments.

I was so excited that it took me a while to realise that Digital Britain, one of the big ideas of David Cameron’s government, was coming to life right there in front of me. It has certainly not been without its critics – me included. This lofty aim, a three-year plan to get the nation doing its business online, sounded ambitious. And to be honest, it was more than a little idealistic. How to persuade us to trust a computer and an internet connection to help us pay bills and deal with all the boring but necessary things we need to keep our lives on track? Not just car tax, but council tax and the television licence and booking doctor’s appointments and a myriad other tasks that used to involve time-consuming and tedious waits in-line or hanging on the telephone.

I can’t find any official figures to back me up, but I’d say – from anecdotal evidence – that the shift in hearts and minds has been pretty impressive. The technological revolution has reached us all, whatever our age. At a recent event I attended to launch a local history book, I had to smile to see my 12-year-old son and a retired school-teacher bonding over her iPad which she was using to film the proceedings. I’d reckon that almost 70 years separated these two, but when technology is involved, age doesn’t have to be a barrier.

However, there is a still a long way to go. For every pensioner like that lady at the book launch, there are a hundred who don’t have a clue how to even switch a computer on. Like my mother, who doesn’t even send texts by mobile phone. If “Digital Britain” is not to divide the nation, those who find technology intimidating or confusing have to be considered. It shouldn’t leave half the country behind. There should still be a choice and an alternative.

What about those homes where there simply isn’t the money for the internet? When I sit down to help my daughter do her maths homework online, I think of the children in her class who are less fortunate. If you’re already disadvantaged financially and materially, imagine how it must feel to be excluded from an activity which other children take part in as easily as breathing? Isn’t this setting up youngsters for failure before they have even had chance to get going?

Also, we all need a back-up. And not just on our computers. There tends to be an assumption from those who work in offices who benefit from super-fast, fibre-optic broadband on tap that being online at any time of day (or night) is automatic. However, anyone who lives in rural community or finds themselves in an urban “blackspot” will tell you that internet connectivity should never be taken for granted.

I’ll not bore you all over again with the terrible experience I had with BT before Christmas, but when I found myself disconnected from broadband for almost two weeks, there was no viable alternative which didn’t involve a trek into town to the library or a café with wi-fi. So much for “universal access”. The adverts for this speed and that package look great, but internet providers must seriously up their game if they are to deliver what we are being led to expect.

As my testing experience proved, the internet is a dark and confusing place. There can be all kinds of reasons why it doesn’t work as well as it should, from the limitations of an ancient laptop to a bookshelf blocking the signal (true). It is all very well having all this connectivity at our fingertips, but how many of us are properly qualified to fix it when it goes wrong? Believe me, it will go wrong.