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Guest Blog: Digital exclusion – 50 years of failure to learn and apply lessons

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In our latest Guest Blog, Leela Damodaran, Emeritus Professor of Digital Inclusion and Participation at Loughborough University, explores how decades of missed opportunities have left huge numbers of older people digitally excluded in Wales and across the UK.

Many of us enjoy the numerous benefits that digital technologies can bring to our lives, including the ways they enable us to connect socially with the world around us, something crucial to support our well-being.

These social connections not only benefit us as individuals – improving our mental and physical health – but also bring wider benefits to our communities, the economy and society as a whole, and can be particularly important as we grow older.

That’s why many older people greatly value digital technology such as video calls, which enable them to be present in the lives of loved ones who they may otherwise be unable to be in contact with. There are also many examples of where digital technology has enabled older people to enrich their lives, reliving highly significant memorable past experiences.

For example, a recent project in Wales used technological devices – including Virtual Reality headsets and haptic interfaces – to enable older people to ‘re-live’ early memories and experience the seaside holidays of their childhoods in all but physical presence, enjoying the sound of the waves, texture of the sand and so on.

Older people are also increasingly using digital technologies to discover new ways to re-connect with their earlier lives and their personal histories, such as people who moved to the UK many years ago from places such as India and Africa going online to find rich, vivid images of the places they saw on their journeys, and details (beyond personal memory), of things like the menus aboard the ships on which they travelled.

Such experiences are enriching and positive and, in some cases, transformative, but are unfortunately denied to those who are not online, as is so much more. This often means that the people who might benefit most from the kinds of support technology can provide – such as retired or unemployed individuals whose social networks tend to ‘shrink’ – are frequently excluded.

Having fewer social contacts threatens our ability to stay connected socially, leaving us without human interaction and a sense of belonging, and leading to feelings of loneliness and isolation, which can be hugely damaging to our health and well-being.

In addition to creating and/or reinforcing feelings of loneliness, there are also numerous other negative experiences resulting from digitalisation for the many digitally-disadvantaged/excluded, as highlighted in the examples described below. They illustrate the kinds of stressful demands many older people experience on a daily basis at an ever-increasing rate – without any counter-measures or safeguards in place.

Digitalisation is of course not a new phenomenon: it’s now fifty years since the early 1970’s when early online systems were being introduced into many sectors including Banking, Transport, and Retail. At that time, there was  concern to promote positive human outcomes from the impact of computerisation and considerable focus and extensive efforts were invested in improving user-friendliness, promoting user-centred design and usability. The new millennium brought digitalisation at an accelerated rate – including the switch from analogue to digital television. Then, in 2020 the COVID Pandemic spawned a highly- accelerated rate of digitalisation. The crisis situation meant that this happened at speed and apparently with little or no consideration regarding the adverse consequences for the digitally-disadvantaged/excluded.

The growing phenomenon of loneliness is one of the consequences that is recognised as highly negative and damaging and is now on the political agenda. However, the fact that it is exacerbated by the shift to digital in place of human communication and connection does not appear to have led to any meaningful measures being introduced to reverse – or even to curb – this trend.  Indeed, there is little evidence to suggest that the issues and barriers that a shift to ‘Digital First’ or ‘100% Digital’ could create, particularly for older people, are being addressed at a policy level.

It appears to be the case that systematic risk assessment or proper consideration of serious potential hazards to well-being and to the negative consequences occurring for many people – especially older people – has been abandoned without any regard to the human, social and economic costs.

Addressing this by enabling older people to become and remain digitally connected requires action at many levels – from design, awareness, education and understanding of these issues within the business community, wider society and, perhaps most importantly, in law. This approach must include action to improve and simplify the user experience and will require measures that deliver effective changes across key areas of online activities including email, WiFi networks, online banking and government services, including institutions of the welfare state.

Yet the reality is that the current policies of digitalisation in many businesses and other organisations do not appear to reflect these issues and, concerningly, fail to address the need for at least a modicum of continued human contact to support older customers to develop and improve their digital skills. Easy access to human support could be provided either face-to-face or on the telephone. Without such provision, many older people face the dilemma of either being excluded from access to the countless benefits of the digital world or relinquishing valued independence by acquiescing to the use of an intermediary such as a family member or friend with digital skills. This is deeply troubling for many – especially those with no-one to ask for help.

Current policies also fail to recognise that, for some individuals, going online is just not possible for many reasons, such as impaired brain function due to microvascular disease, which is experienced by very substantial numbers of people over the age of fifty. This means that non-digital alternatives are increasingly limited or even non-existent. On our current trajectory towards digital first, there is a significant risk that these individuals could be excluded entirely from accessing crucial information and services, effectively stripping people of their rights to engage with and participate in society.

We are perhaps at an important ‘tipping point’ for society regarding the impact we are willing to accept digitalisation to have in all of our lives of us all – particularly those of older persons.  Boosted by the circumstances of the pandemic, a new digital order is rapidly consolidating its position, seemingly with little or no place for human-centred policies and practices generally, and with vanishing possibilities for human-to-human communication.

The established reach and scale of the online world, and its ubiquity increasingly being taken for granted, means that anyone excluded from the digital world is greatly disadvantaged. Older people in particular are often excluded, face risks to their health and well-being, and are unable to enjoy the many advantages from which much of the population benefits.  The major irony is that these highly negative impacts are being brought about by digitalisation – potentially the 21st century’s most powerful force for enhancing independence and the quality of life everyone – including older people. Instead, unfettered by any constraints or safeguards to protect all people who are digitally-disadvantaged – the pace of digitalisation and negative impacts accelerates daily.  We clearly need to work together to stem these developments with urgency.


Example 1:  Ordering fish and chips on holiday

For an older couple, the simple pleasure and seaside ritual of purchasing fish and chips on their traditional holiday turned into a time-consuming task of extraordinary complexity, with many demands and frustrations.  The couple phoned the Bournemouth outlet of fishery chain Harry Ramsden’s to place an order for fish and chips, something they had done many times in the past without any difficulty. However, on this occasion, what was expected to be a simple transaction turned into a prolonged and stressful process.

It transpired that the branch no longer accepts orders over the phone and the only way to place an order without queuing at the Take-Away section of the restaurant is to go online and use Deliveroo. The couple began the unfamiliar process of using Deliveroo expecting to be able to eat in around 30 minutes. Instead, they found themselves having to perform at least seventeen different input operations – including the puzzling requirement to provide many items of personal data.  To this couple, unfamiliar with online purchasing of this kind – as will be the case for many older people – the need for this extraordinarily labour-intensive, tortuous, time-consuming and invasive procedure simply to order fish and chips was barely believable and verging on farce.

In the end, hunger and frustration led to them driving their car to Harry Ramsden’s premises and queuing to place an order at the Take-Away section of the restaurant. Well-over an hour of precious ‘holiday time’ had been completely wasted in frustration and confusion – and proved futile.


Example 2: Cancellation of doorstep milk delivery

A 90-year-old lady who had been receiving milk deliveries to her door for many, many years suddenly found that, without any notification of which she was aware, she was no longer in receipt of a delivery. When her daughter queried this on her mother’s behalf, the response from the supplier responsible was “her mother was someone who placed her order over the telephone, but we don’t do telephone orders anymore. We informed her of this change by email. She will have to go online if she wishes to resume the delivery service”.

Going online by herself was not an option for the 90-year-old (a former member of staff at Bletchley Park).  So, this remarkable senior citizen who had made a major contribution to the war effort was in older age denied a very basic provision for no reason other than she was not online. Despite this shocking example featuring on the TV programme ‘Rip-Off Britain’, it seems that this widespread issue has yet to be addressed effectively.

Experiences such as those described in the two examples above are occurring daily throughout the UK (and presumably worldwide), where punitive consequences of policy decisions regarding digitalisation penalise older people and many other digitally disadvantaged/excluded people.

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