Civil servants are using technology as a weapon to wage war on our retirees

In 2010, when the new coalition government was just days old, cabinet minister Francis Maude wanted a tech guru to help him cut government costs. He ran into Martha Lane Fox, who had founded a dot com travel agency. Lane Fox had then spent the next decade evangelizing for the World Wide Web with the muffled zeal of a Victorian missionary.

At one point, she condescendingly said that the web was needed most “in the awful housing estates” whether they wanted it or not – a sort of mandatory vaccination, but with technology. At this point, I must confess that I made a terrible and possibly catastrophic mistake. I facetiously suggested that Lane Fox should be elevated to the House of Lords, where she could do less damage and be safely ignored. Four years later, that’s exactly what Maude did: Rise up, Baroness Lane Fox of Soho! – but the damage was already done. Fox’s first act for the coalition government was to launch a new doctrine, “digital by default,” in its 2010 DirectGov report.

A new agency was created to achieve this, the Government Digital Service, which was given carte blanche to tell all the other tech teams in Whitehall how to do things. These acolytes have kept a life-size cardboard cutout of Lane Fox at the Aviation House reception in Aldwych. His reign of terror was brief, however, but he managed to embrace the “digital by default” mantra; Public Health England said it was a ‘digital first’ in 2017.

A small but annoying problem remained, however. How should digital services deal with the millions of tech rejections? A 2013 report from Policy Exchange suggested not to worry: they would eventually die. In fact, the number of people refusing to use digital government services has remained about the same over the past six years, researchers have found. “Age…remains a strong factor when it comes to non-use of digital services and media,” says a report led by Professor Simeon Yates of the University of Liverpool, one of the few academics to recognize that this may in fact be a problem.

They also found “there is growing evidence of limited or ‘narrow’ use among younger citizens.” Some of the same academics are now wondering if a new measure – they call it a minimum digital living standard (MDLS) – will help. Policy experts fear that the excluded are overwhelmingly old and poor, meaning those who need health services the most do not have access to them digitally. They are also right to worry, as it is a callous way to treat the most vulnerable. But they miss an important point.

In a very rare interview last week, Kate Bush explained that she wears a brick phone because it’s less distracting. Do you think she’s more or less likely to create more wonderful music if her creative contemplation is interrupted by notifications? It’s an admirable choice, just as the choice of my elderly neighbors to refuse to have broadband or a smartphone is a choice that must be respected. In other words, humans have free will and we should be able to choose how we interact.

It is difficult to say when the British state is incompetent, or insubordinate, or simply cruel. But the suspicion persists. Digital is being used to get revenge on older Brits, and if we’re left out then it serves us very well.

Andrew Orlowski is on Twitter @andreworlowski

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