Imagine a world where the internet is closed down. A cyber holiday across the globe. An online blackout.
Think of the chaos that would ensue. It would be like Squid Game dominoes crashing down as ordinary life for many would come to a halt.
Banking and eCommerce would stutter to a stop. Supply chain misery on a scale unimaginable – even in today’s pandemic context. Food would start to run out. People wouldn’t be able to communicate using channels they’d grown used to. Social networks would be down. Hospitals and health services – and all the patients they care for – would suffer.
People everywhere would be disconnected from one another. Hunger, anger and devastation would be unleashed on the world.
Now cut back to today, and imagine a typical Tuesday. Your typical Tuesday. Just an ordinary mid-week day when you’re going about what you normally do. Only for the sake of the game, you’re not allowed to use your phone for the whole 24 hours.
You’d have to figure out how to get from A to B by asking others, consulting a map. Not so awful, huh? But then what if you need to check your bank account or order something online and you’re nowhere near your laptop? Ah wait…. I’m taking away your laptop, too, and you’re not allowed to cheat and use someone else’s. You’re not allowed to go online….
Let me ask you something. How often throughout the day do you refer to your phone for information, the time, directions, the news? How many apps do you use to organise your life, pick up some shopping, order food or research something? Watch something? Listen to something? Do something?
What’s your screen time like?
Over the last couple of decades, more and more of us have grown reliant on the internet. It sort of happened by stealth, didn’t it? One moment you’re recording VHS tapes and learning how to ‘text’ and use a ‘modem’; then next you’re juggling devices as you multi-task everything you do from watching TV to cooking to entertaining the kids to travelling and working.
I lived in Japan in the early nineties – in a very remote part of the country and up a mountain in a little village. Before most of us had mobile phones. And before people had adopted personal computers en masse either for their home lives or their working lives. The internet was buzzing into life but most of us didn’t send emails. I wrote little letters by hand to friends and family. I longed to receive a blue envelope from overseas to help me feel connected to my life back home.
But in those days, my lack of connection mirrored that of more or less everybody else. I wasn’t particularly excluded. I had the telephone – which I used from time to time – although it was prohibitively expensive to do so very often.
I got a pay cheque and I could afford my bills. I was navigating a foreign country and a language I didn’t know how to speak or read – but it was ok. I was ok.
Fast forward to today, and there are people in our country who are more cut off now than I was back then. Because fast forward to today, and most of life is made possible through online connections. It has offered untold benefits to so many…. who among us could conceive how we would have got through the last devastating period of our lives without the wonders of the world wide web. It’s helped us through the best of times and the worst of times.
But think of those of us who don’t have connectivity, or devices, or the confidence to do things online or use the tech. How do we – they – go about their day to day lives?
Many UK citizens have mobile telephones. But lots of us don’t have broadband at home. And many of us choose to only have a landline. Maybe we’re a bit older and feel we’re perfectly fine without the internet. We’ve done perfectly well before and we’re ok. Maybe we’re a bit older and would love to understand more how to use the computers or smartphones our well-meaning families buy for us or help us install. Maybe we have access issues that challenge us. Or maybe we have to choose between putting food on the table or home access to the online world.
I feel fortunate and proud to work for a company that is trying to help solve some of these issues. From a social tariff designed to help people on benefits (called BT Home Essentials), to a package of measures to support children’s access to education (Lockdown Learning) to an amazing array of free training to help anyone and everyone make the most of life in the digital world – in their home or their work lives (BT Skills for Tomorrow)….. And that’s not even mentioning the wide range of support we have been giving people in need over the last twenty months – everything from joining forces as a partner of the National Emergencies Trust, to funding devices for vulnerable people to donating baby alarms to use in hospitals to giving free data to NHS staff and setting up the Nightingale Hospitals in a matter of days.
However, I think systemic change can only happen when people come together. Which is why I am deeply committed to lending my support and championship to the Digital Poverty Alliance. We have a bold ambition – to help end digital poverty. I was honoured to have been invited to join as an Ambassador in a personal capacity, and want to try to do my bit. This starts, I think, by helping shine a light on some of the programmes I am involved with which help address social mobility and digital exclusion – which of course are inextricably linked. I’d like anyone reading this to keep a note of some of these organisations in case they could help people you know, in your networks, some day….
First, a big shout-out here to CAST (and Catalyst) where I am a Trustee – they are helping civil society grow digital capability and capacity through ‘digital, data and design’ – ultimately benefitting millions of people across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and beyond. If you know a charity that could do with some help – please point them over here. They’re joining forces with Digital Poverty Alliance, too.
I also want to call out the work of FutureDotNow. I am delighted to serve on their Board (alongside their Chair Sir Peter Estlin, CEO Liz Williams, and other great organisations like Lloyds, Salesforce, PwC, Nominet and Good Things Foundation), having been part of the original working group that helped create it. For those who don’t know, FutureDotNow aims to help workforces across the UK understand the benefits of digital skills – not just for productivity and the bottom line – which is also critical – but for the wellbeing and prospects of people who work.
And I’m keen to signpost the brilliant work both FastFutures and Movement to Work do to help people from underrepresented backgrounds make that vital bridge from education into work in the digital economy. Movement to Work focusses on young people not in education, employment or training. FastFutures has created a completely free virtual programme with free wrap around support to help cohorts of young people learn digital and employability skills using real business case studies from employers such as BT, Barclays and the NHS. Both FastFutures and Movement to Work are helping transform young lives in our country.
There are so many other organisations I want to tell you about, and I will, in future articles. In the meantime, I urge you to Google TeenTech, Every Child Needs a Mentor – and the magnificent Positive Transformation Group.
I started this article asking you to imagine a world where the internet closed down for a while. And then a twenty four hour period where you, in your life, wouldn’t be able to go online. The first scenario borders on apocalypse; the second – if it happened – would make many of us twitchy and anxious. A whole ordinary day without being able to access the internet?
Well the brutal reality is that many citizens across all of our devolved nations don’t, or can’t, access the internet. Deprived of the information super high way which enables so many of us to lead enriched, enabled, empowered lives.
The Digital Poverty Alliance wants to fix this, to help create a more equitable digital economy for all. I am proud to join them in that endeavour.