Beyond the soup kitchen
"The whole idea of what a homeless service is, is a soup kitchen," one of the representatives for The Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields said yesterday. But does it have to be?
It was in the middle of "Teacamp", a monthly series of meetings that sport the same mix of geeks, government, and do-gooders as the annual UK Govcamp we covered a couple of weeks back. Meetings like this seem to be going on all the time all over the place, trying to figure out ways to use technology to help people. Hardly anyone has any budget, yet that seems not to matter: the optimism is contagious. This week's Teacamp also featured Westminster in Touch, an effort to support local residents and charities; the organization runs a biannual IT Support Forum to brainstorm (the next is March 28).
I have to admit: when I first read about Martha Lane Fox's Digital Inclusion initiative my worst rebellious instincts were triggered: why should anyone be bullied online if they didn't want to go there? Maybe at least some of those 9 million people who have never used the Internet in Britain would like to be left in peace to read books and listen to - rather than use - the wireless.
But the "digital divide" predicted even in the earliest days of the Net is real: those 9 million are those in the most vulnerable sectors of society. According to research published on the RaceOnline site, the percentage of people who have never used the Net correlates closely with income. This isn't really much of a surprise, although you would expect to see a slight tick upwards again at the very top economic levels, where not so long ago people were too grand, too successful, and too set in their ways to feel the need to go online. But they have proxies: their assistants can answer their email and do their Web shopping.
When Internet access was tied to computers, the homeless in particular were at an extreme disadvantage. You can't keep a desktop computer if you have nowhere - or only a very tiny, insecure space - to put it or power it, and you can't afford broadband or a landline. A laptop presents only slightly fewer problems. Even assuming you can find free wifi to use somewhere, how do you keep the laptop from being stolen or damaged? Where and how do you keep it charged? And so The Connection, like libraries and other places, runs a day center with a computing area and resources to help, including computer training.
But even that, they said, hasn't been reaching the most excluded, the under-25s that The Connection sees. When you think about it, it's logical, but I had to be reminded to think about it. Having missed out on - or been failed by - school education, this group doesn't see the Net as the opportunity the rest of us imagine it to be for them.
"They have no idea of creating anything to help their involvement."
So rather than being "digital natives", their position might be comparable to people who have grown up without language or perhaps autistic children whose intelligence and ability to learn has been disrupted by their brain wiring and development so much that the gap between them and their normally wired peers keeps increasing. Today's elderly who lack the motivation, the cognitive functioning, or the physical ability to go online will be catered to, even if only by proxy, until they die out. But imagine being 20 today and having no digital life beyond the completely passive experience of watching a few clips on YouTube or glancing at a Facebook page and thinking they have nothing to do with you. You will go through your entire life at a progressively greater disadvantage. Just as we assume that today's 80-year-olds grew up with movies, radio, and postal mail, when *you* are 80 (if the planet hasn't run out of energy and water and been forced to turn off all the computers by then), in devising systems to help you society will assume you grew up with television, email, and ecommerce. Whatever is put in place to help you navigate whatever that complex future will be like, will be completely outside your grasp.
So The Connection is helping them to do some simple things: upload interviews about their lives, annotate YouTube clips, create comic strips - anything to break this passive lack of interest. Beyond that, there's a big opportunity in smart phones, which don't need charging so often and are easier to protect - and can take advantage of free wifi just as a laptop can. The Connection is working on things like an SMS service that goes out twice a day and provides weather reports, maps of food runs, and information about free things to do. Should you be technically skilled and willing, they're looking for geeky types to help them put these ideas together and automate them. There are still issues around getting people phones, of course - and around the street value of a phone - but once you have a phone where you can be contacted by friend, family, and agencies, it's a whole different life. As it is again if you can be convinced that the Net belongs to you, too, not just all those other people.