Paul Greville, digital services manager at the Masterton District Library. PHOTO/FILE

Lisa Urbani

“Ten or 15 years ago, broadband access was a lifestyle choice”, Masterton Library’s digital services manager Paul Greville says.

“Now it’s impossible to function in society without the internet, and once 80 per cent of government services moved online, many people who were not digitally literate, were left behind.

“Applying for tax refunds, or visas, or farm subsidies for example, were suddenly inaccessible to anyone who wasn’t connected, or didn’t know how to use the technology.”

Paul likened it to having some people being able to ascend a slope gradually as they learned from an early age how to manage technology, while those who were not familiar with it, had to “scale a cliff”.

The digital divide is very much on the government radar, but not enough is done to measure how many people have been left floundering, and an indication of this is the failure of the last census, when there was no infrastructure for the people not able to participate online.

It mainly affects senior members of society and the less well-off, but also families that are separated, and those in rural areas where broadband is limited, and thus leaves a proportion of the population isolated and digitally adrift.

Often, there is a feeling of shame or stigma attached to being unfamiliar with the technology.

A lot of infrastructure needs to be in place first in order to access the internet, and this is confusing and daunting, and can be expensive for many people.

As Paul puts it, “our generation has ‘koumpounophobia’ [fear of buttons], whereby, having lived through the Cold War with the threat of nuclear missiles being launched by red buttons, we are cautious when it comes to pushing buttons, whereas younger people have no such fears about experimenting with them”.

For those of us who were not exposed to computers at an early age, there is a psychological barrier to learning which makes us feel stupid, embarrassed, and inadequate.

In Masterton, as of the 2013 census, there was a 63 per cent uptake of broadband, dipping to about 48 per cent in the poorer areas, even our best areas were well behind the national average of 72 per cent.
Fortunately, there are organisations trying to address this problem.

Through the Spark Foundation, Skinny Jump has helped about 350 families in Masterton, or about 1400 people, to access the internet – an almost six per cent increase in connectivity – over the past three years.

They have addressed the problem by setting up people with cheap 4G internet deals – which hook up to cell towers and put internet access into households, with “pay as you go” deals and no contracts.

Clients can connect to the wifi and have an instant network connection, using an iPad, which they can also unplug and bring to the library if they need help.

Paul is proud of the efforts of the Masterton Council District Library in prioritising digital literacy.

They offer courses such as ‘Device Advice’ on Tuesdays and ‘Digital Seniors’ on Wednesdays, or ‘Stepping Up’ courses on how to write a CV or use Google, and the basics of using tablets, computers and mobile phones.

“It’s not hopeless, don’t think you can’t catch up,” Paul said.

“Help is at hand.”