Tuesday 7 August 2012

The disenfranchising nature of the internet in society - a Rant

This morning has left me angry. Frustrated and angry. Not for myself but for those who are discriminated against and made to feel it is their fault when they battle with the internet.

It all started with the simple task of topping up a mobile broadband account, continued to a farce with attempting online payment and ended with an unsatisfactory solution.

I had set up a pay as you go mobile broadband account with a major UK player for a friend of mine. It is a straightforward system that has worked happily for over a year. Up to today, I had made payments with my friend re-paying me retrospectively.

However, people do prefer to be independent and we decided that she would learn how to top up the mobile broadband herself. After all, it should be straightforward, we thought.

An hour later we had devised a three page (!) set of instructions. At last, we reached the final payment page. Hurrah! We thought. But no, doom was at hand.

Having cleared the hurdles of name, address, bank card details etcetera, it came to the complete payment button. Up popped the card verification window. Authorisation failed.

A further hour was spent in telephone calls to the card provider. Everything was apparently rectified in that time. So back to payment attempt 2 - and 3 - and 4. Payment still failed.

We reverted to the old pattern of my paying - and were done within 10 minutes

By this time my friend, an intelligent, self sufficient professional woman with a lot of experience and knowledge, was left feeling as if she was inadequate and unable to control her own destiny. It makes me angry that she is the one who feels the blame - not the convoluted, user unfriendly internet systems which had entangled her.

The vast majority of people can go into a shop and pay by cash or card. The vast majority of people can go into a bank and receive assistance. The vast majority do not have the same experience on the internet. Yes, many do but you have to be quite internet literate if you want to shop and pay online. 

Think back to the first time you tried paying for something on the internet - the accounts you had to set up, verifications by e-mail, getting your payment cards verified. Now it all seems to work smoothly for you - but at the start it did not appear so simple.

And woe betide you if things go wrong! Many companies have poor and often hidden customer support, never mind the often impossibility of talking to someone you can understand. Remember that surge of trepidation when dealing with questionnaires or pressure from official organisations to do everything online; Where errors  can send you on a time-wasting merry-go-round - with the additional threat of loss of benefits or legal action due to non-compliance.

This disenfranches those in our society with fear of technology, those unfamiliar with it due to age, those who face additional hurdles due to hearing or sight impairment. People who have been included and independent previously suddenly find themselves forced into greater dependency on those more comfortable with online systems.

I am also angry because it has created a new type of discrimination - between those comfortable with technology and striving to adopt ever more - and those who do not. Look out for the gentle ribbing, the one-upmanship, the downright glee when someone can delight at the discomfort of those battling with technology.

There are trends in the internet towards greater simplification and accessibility. After all, businesses and organisations do want to maximise the number of users and customers. However, we still have a long way to go.

You DO have a right to be angry. Be proactive, let businesses and organisations know that they could do better. That way we can all work our way back to a more inclusive society.

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