When everyday services become paperless, when the simplest actions – like carrying out an administrative procedure, looking up a bus timetable, monitoring your child’s schooling – require the possession and mastery of a smartphone or computer, this gives rise to further inequality, widening the gap between generations, social backgrounds, those with and without higher education.
Very specific questions
The Covid-19 health crisis has brought this to the fore: many households do not have the resources to equip every family member with a computer or cell phone, or to pay for an Internet subscription.
For others, it is getting to grips with the tool that is the problem. But for Antoine Picon, research director at École des ponts ParisTech and professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, “We can clearly see that the unequal access to digital technology is grafted onto existing inequalities. Digital technology cannot be thought of in isolation from the physical world: teleworking in peace and distance learning is difficult when your accommodation is too small, when you cannot separate yourself from other family members.”
A factor of progress for those who have mastered it, digital technology marginalizes others, making it more difficult for them to access their rights, work and communicate with others. All over France, regions are therefore coming up with increasing numbers of innovations to bridge the gap. Rennes and Grenoble have adopted a digital inclusion plan, with the support of Emmaüs Connect. The urban community of Grand Besançon has worked with a local start-up to create a “filter” interface, which allows users who are not Internet-savvy to find the same icons, the same language and the same fields to be completed, whatever the website. In Alfortville, users can get help from city officials to complete formalities on touch-screen terminals in the “Kiosk”, a public space located near the RER station.
There are now around 10,000 digital mediation facilities in France, including 4,500 digital public spaces. There is also a new generation of third-party facilities managed by private collectives, associations and educational establishments. The government launched a national development program to support them in 2019. The goal is to devote €110m over three years to create 300 “regional factories”. In 2022, it will be possible to carry out 100% of administrative procedures on the Internet. But will we all be equal in the face of these paperless public services? This is the question, and the health crisis makes it more relevant than ever.
million French people say they feel cut off from digital technology.
“Digital technology cannot be thought of in isolation from the physical world.”
of those aged 75 or over and 41% of people without educational qualifications had no Internet connection in 2019.
“Lack of digital skills is the illiteracy of the modern age.”
Who are the digitally excluded?
Marie Cohen-Skalli: To know this, we have to cross-reference various figures: according to INSEE, 17% of French people cannot use digital technology for everyday purposes and 47% lack at least one basic skill. Young people, seniors, city residents or inhabitants of rural areas, the profiles are varied and go against common wisdom. Some seniors have good equipment but few skills; young people can be very comfortable on social networks, but much less so when it comes to using digital technology in a professional context, for writing and sending a CV, for example.
You mentioned equipment. What is the sticking point? Is it access to skills or access to equipment?
Marie Cohen-Skalli: Both, but for a long time we mostly addressed the skills component, responding by providing support for the public. Yet we can see that one of the major barriers in France is the cost of equipment and connection. A recent report from the Capgemini Research Institute shows that for 56% of people who are offline and aged 22 to 36, the cost of the device is the reason they have never used the Internet. Smartphones get lost, get stolen, break and are too expensive for someone who is on minimum welfare payments.
Is the health crisis increasing awareness of these issues?
Marie Cohen-Skalli: Yes, clearly, there is a feeling that the State and local authorities are ready to release more resources to equip people on low incomes and especially the young. The crisis has shown that the use of digital technology is not a choice. It affects all our everyday services and should become a right! Lack of digital skills is the illiteracy of the modern age. The digital revolution has been very rapid, it happened in a few decades, and it is stigmatizing for those who are not on board the technology train. Among the audiences we support, there may be a fear of this abstract world. This is why it is important to spend time with them, with empathy and sensitivity. This is what Emmaüs Connect volunteers do, and the people on job integration schemes who run our reception centers.