Page last updated at 13:31 GMT, Thursday, 6 August 2009 14:31 UK

The internet's conscientious objectors

Bored woman in the office

The world of internet "have-nots" is not just populated by people who can't go online. Chris Bowlby finds there are many who simply won't.

If you're reading this, you're part of the internet using majority. But it's not nearly as much of an overwhelming majority as many assume.

It's estimated that as many as 17 million people in Britain aged over 15 are not using the internet.

Ellen Helsper
Ellen Helsper says non-users are becoming ever more militant

As a report, released on Thursday, says spending on information technology is more important to Britons than anything except food, there are many who are staying firmly beyond the grasps of the net. And, in a worrying trend for those planning a "digital revolution" in public services, the rate at which people are becoming new users is slowing.

Non-users are "becoming less and less likely to want to be engaging with technology such as the internet," says Ellen Helsper, who has been a leading researcher with the Oxford Internet Institute. There is a rise in the number of people saying they are just not interested in being online, "it's not that relevant to my life, I don't see how I would fit it in".

So the internet refuseniks seem to be, in many cases, very determined. But given the sheer wealth of information that can be accessed through a few mouse clicks and keystrokes, why would anyone consciously choose to avoid the online world?

At University of Dundee I meet researchers whose job it is to understand why so many people are shunning the net.

Their subjects are mostly over 50s and several say net use would leave them less or no time for activities they value highly.

"I know a lot of friends, they're hooked on the damn thing" says one woman. She knew a "marvellous artist" who had abandoned her art in order to spend time computing.

Impersonal

"It's destroyed a lot of family life" complains another, as hobbies are no longer enjoyed communally.

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Others lament the loss of personal communication.

"We tried computing and we're back to writing letters" says one of those being questioned by researcher, as e-mail is seen as too impersonal for close human contact.

"My wife won't send e-mail" one man says. "She likes the personal touch [so] doesn't know what's happening to that letter of yours [if it is sent electronically]."

Privacy is another worry, as computers have made information gathering so powerful.

"The whole world's on computers", says one woman. "You just have to say your postcode and they know everything about you. I'm just not interested."

"If you hit the wrong key," says her neighbour, "what about privacy?"

And hitting the wrong key took us into complaints about design and computer complexity.

"I'm bad with fingers, that's why I make mistakes" one woman tells me. "Computers are like a Rubik's cube," a former teacher says. "Once you start to make a mess, and you don't know what you're doing, all you do is make a bigger mess."

Curtains down

Alan Newell, professor at the Dundee university school of computing, points out the typical computer tends "to be designed by young male computer scientists and they tend not to understand the challenges it provides for groups of people they never meet".

Prof Alan Newel
Prof Alan Newell: 'Computers tend to be designed by young males'

While the sheer amount of information online is what draws many to immerse themselves in the net, the same fact also deters some.

"You get so much junk you have to clear out" one confirmed non-user complains. "I just don't feel I'm going to get any pleasure out of it", says another in the group.

But what's the harm in opting out of everything online?

There is growing anxiety that those who choose to remain offline will pay a price. One woman living in sheltered housing had noticed all the discounts being given to those paying electronically. She speaks of a "curtain coming down" between those who were and were not online.

It's a problem all over the country. At a community centre run by the Lighthouse project at Rowley Regis in the Midlands, Tina and Brian Whitehouse are working hard at their computer skills after both losing jobs in the recession.

"A lot of the jobs now, you can only apply online" says Tina, "so if you don't know the basics of a computer, how can you apply online?"

This centre's work shows how the millions not online are far from confined to older people.

"You'd be amazed at the amount of people of all ages who come here with no computer experience" says John Payne, who works at the centre.

Forcing a switch

He is in late 20s and only recently took up computing and using the internet as his parents could not afford to be online at home. Even those who can afford computers, he adds, often let them gather dust as they are fearful of damaging them and lack the training and support to become regular users.

With the current pressure on public spending government wants to move more and more services online, arguing that services can both be improved and cost less to deliver.

Martha Lane-Fox
You can't be a proper citizen of our society in the future if you are not online
Martha Lane-Fox

But if many millions remain offline, savings will be harder to make, and political controversy will grow if government tries to force people to switch by offering more and more limited alternatives - especially in areas such as health care.

Martha Lane Fox, dotcom pioneer and now appointed as the government's digital inclusion champion, is convinced of the internet's benefits for all.

"I don't think you can be a proper citizen of our society in the future if you are not engaged online," she says.

But she worries too, she told me, about the refuseniks' attitudes becoming "too prevalent".

So those who find life without the internet unimaginable, and those who still aren't convinced, must find better ways of understanding each other - provided, that is, they can ever agree on how to communicate.


Here is a selection of your comments.

Hear hear! I'm 36, and have internet access at home but never use it. I spend my working life using a computer and have to use the internet for work purposes, the last thing I want to do when I get home is sit in front of another computer! I've been asked by friends to join networking sites but I'm just not interested. If you want to speak to me, I have a telephone!
Rebecca, Leicester, UK

I can understand people not wanting to go online. I don't have a computer at home. I know I would waste hours and get addicted to probably not very life-enhancing activities. I'm lucky I can use my work computer for buying plane tickets etc. Many, not just the old, want to keep life simple. At most one credit card. One debit card. One pin number. No passwords. I've never had a mobile phone and I prefer small supermarkets to large because there is less choice. I cancelled my SKY so now I've only got four channels, which is too many. I don't think the human brain was intended to be stuffed with lots of different nonsense. We are probably wired up to successfully hunt one animal or make a good job of carving a log into a God shape.
Jon, Manchester

My elderly mother threw out her computer when, after composing a long and important Email it glibly announced that it was going to shut down for important updates - updates to the MP3 player.
John B, Clitheroe

While I don't know how I survived B.I. (Before Internet), there are many who manage perfectly well without it. The author should not assume that these people are resisting as if it is some kind of war, they simply don't feel the need to connect or can't afford it. There is a group who use the internet for basic web-browsing and e-mail some of whom have low incomes and it is grossly unfair to ask that they and non-users subsidise nationwide broadband installation by paying a telephone tax so that big, wealthy families with multiple computers can watch movies, play games and video-chat all at the same time.
John, London

For years the children have been required to do homework which is set on line which has made me angry as a being a single parent for 12 years - what's wrong with a pen and book? My new stepdaughter, 13 years old, who comes to visit every other week has her work online and has to reference the internet now. With routers, printers, remote access I have become the IT administrator as one of my many jobs! My new husband gets his work sent via email and looking for work or applying for jobs especially with the NHS just wont accept the fact you are not online. I am grateful that if we can afford a holiday we can leave this behind along with mobile phones, the stress and agitation when the modem or the network isn't working is pure hell. It has destroyed family life and it has cost a small fortune over the years along with broadband subscriptions. I do wish that you had an option or choice if you wanted to be linked by this umbilical cord to the www but unfortunately it seems we have to or face being labeled 'strange' or 'old' or 'technophobe' for not being part of it all.
Helen Stanton, Bedford

I work as a web designer, but I find the idea that any particular piece of technology should be compulsory is a bit dictatorial. To not have a mobile phone is almost unthinkable, and we treat those without them with suspicion, but we all got ok before they became commonplace. Likewise the internet, which often just mimics and simplifies tasks performed by the postal service, say, or a reference library. It's great, but it isn't really necessary. To force people to apply for jobs online will alienate some of the most deprived people from the job market and obviously reduce social mobility.
Paul Stevens, Manchester

I entirely agree with Martha Lane-Fox. These Luddite refuseniks should be compelled to become proper 21st Century citizens. The government must show the will to drive this through, regardless of sensitivities. I mean, who do they think they are? Free-willed people living in a democracy?
Arnie, Wolverhampton

"'I don't think you can be a proper citizen of our society in the future if you are not engaged online."

I find this a bit insulting. My parents are in their 60s - they don't have a computer or the internet. If they need to sort something out, they either write a letter or make a telephone call - simple. A bit old-fashioned in some people's eyes, but it gets a result. They are happy to live their lives internet free, so why the pressure ? Let them be.
Becky, Manchester

How arrogant of Martha Lane-Fox! Who is she to say who will or will not be a "proper citizen of our society"?
Bruno Wilson, Banbury

I remember at school reading a short story called 'The Machine Stops'. It was set in the future at an imagined time when everything a person needed to survive was literally brought to them via a computer (the machine) which controlled all services and communication. When the machine stopped the isolated individuals no longer had the necessary knowledge of how to go about providing for themselves or how to communicate with other people directly; they did not know how to use tools other than buttons or switches and where very unfit because of having had every thing brought to them. So I suggest we insist that people continue to learn all the things necessary to survive without computers. They use electricity, for example. If there was a stoppage for any reason that that could not be fixed quickly and people were dependent on their computers with no alternatives or batteries it seems obvious they would be in dire straits. At least let us make sure that children and any one in education learns how to grow vegetables, for example, along side their computer training.
Heather Lyon, Lincoln, UK

I am a 21-year-old male, and cannot stand using computers, or the internet. This is not through lack of knowledge on the subject, on the contrary, I am an IT Consultant for IBM. I am currently at this job as it was the only one I could find at the time of searching, and as most people of my generation, I was lucky enough to have basic computing skills taught to me at school. However, before I began this job, and now as well when I am not at work, I shun computers and the internet almost entirely. I believe that can have many detrimental effects on our lives, including loss of social interaction, loss of physical activity, and a loss of ability to read and think deeply.

I am aware of the benefits of the internet, and it's mind boggling array of information, but I still would prefer to go to a library and read a book. After all, is that not what we used to do, and we were getting along fine without it were we not?
Rob Coltman, Partridge Green, England

So, Martha Lane Fox, appointed as the government's digital inclusion champion, says "I don't think you can be a proper citizen of our society in the future if you are not engaged online".

If people choose not to "engage online", it's their choice and they should not be penalised in any way for it. they have as much right to expect proper provision of services as those who do use computers.
Mum of Two, England

So if you are not online, you can stay unemployed. It's a sad state of affairs that has left the majority of the population shut out. Even as a doctor you cannot now apply the old fashioned way with a CV and some references. The only problem is that if the electricity supply goes, so does all the online and internet.
Rohen Kapur, London UK

We work with computers and we have one customer who will be 93 this summer and he uses his computer for online banking and booking holidays abroad. He also keeps in touch with family by email. We also had another customer who was 88 who had his own website, and he found computers and the information that you could get through the internet fascinating. So lots of older people do love their machines.
Malacandra, Field of Arbol

I have trouble explaining how to use DVDs to my mother (76) and the clock on her video recorder is never right, unless I visit and re-set it. I wish she was available by email, but I know that even though I would happily buy all the equipment for her, it just isn't going to happen. Not least because, apart from not being good with technology, she believes the internet to be full of porn and criminals. Using computers is not as simple as understanding how to send and receive email. As we all know, occasionally unexpected things happen.

I use the internet a lot but even I don't want to use it for everything. It MUST remain possible to live life without it, especially while the older generation are still with us.
A Keys, Brigg, N Lincs

The internet/computing is going to become a skill like reading. When mass education came in there were parents who couldn't read and didn't see the need to learn as they were happy with how their lives ran (or just resisted change). In a generation's time the internet will have 99%+ usage.
Martin, Guildford

With over 200 spam a day, I sometimes envy those not online. Furthermore, how will the technoholics survive when their systems go down? How then will they manage their shopping and banking? I use my computer as little as possible so that I can maintain a healthy quality of life.
Adrian, Farnborough, UK

How will these "refuseniks" comply with the upcoming, mandatory, on-line tax return filing?
Peter Ridgley, Leicester UK

I could see the power of a computer way back in the early 1980s, when just turning on computer equipment in the right order was a work of art, and programs had to be written by oneself on a conveniently provided BASIC interpreter. I was hooked and since then have seen the computer progressively de-skilled, until at present little knowledge is required to operate one or to get on the Internet. Conversely I have seen the Internet get progressively more dangerous from hackers and spammers who appear to have received an unconditional pardon from the powers that be, and even their own computers are full of worms and viruses. Hackers appear to have unrestrained access to the internet. Only this week I have had two intrusion attempts to wreck my computer that were caught by my security software. Computers are wonderful innovation that even the originators could not have envisaged, but which have been criminally allowed to be polluted with all the wrong things while our respected leaders throw up their hands and say, "We can do nothing."
Kevin, Burnley

I have every sympathy for those people who, for one reason or another, haven't had the opportunity to learn to use a computer. They should be given help to learn. But people actually refusing to go online? Tough luck if they miss out on discounts and opportunities. It's their choice, and I see no reason why the rest of us should be held back or made to bend over backwards to accommodate these Luddites.
Christy Andersen, Newcastle, UK

I was a latecomer to the virtues of the internet myself and was constantly struck by how unhelpful all the supposed sources of help were. Everything happened too quickly. Communication was constantly reduced to smaller and smaller abbreviations, and thus less and less intelligible. It was a bit like being struck on a traffic island in the midst of endless hellish surges of vehicles.

If Martha Lane Fox is really serious about getting everyone on the internet she needs to think about creating a babynet, a sort of kiddy-level paddling pool where people are allowed to communicate with each other using such olde worlde terminology as "Dear Sir" and "yours sincerely", etc., operate at precisely the speeds they're comfortable with, and where they don't yet have to duck and dive all the sharks out there with their endlessly varying, highly disguised, personal, political and economic agendas.
Aborkwood, Liverpool, UK

More and more I am becoming disturbed by the attitudes of articles written about people that choose not to use the Internet. Reading between the lines, these people are assumed to be "backward", "old stick-in-the-muds" or "refuseniks". For crying out loud, what on earth is wrong with not using the Internet? It is a tool that can be used for achieving certain things and for some things it is certainly useful. However, if you don't need it, you don't need it. We do not condemn people as "refuseniks" for not driving a car, for being vegetarians, for living together out of marriage. What is the big deal?
Ralph Little, Vancouver, Canada



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