Though Gordon Brown may have trumpeted nationwide broadband access as essential for economic growth at the recent Digital Britain summit, a new Oxford University study suggests the barriers to creating a new digital Britain could lie in hearts and minds rather than cables and routers.
Revealing that the gap in positive attitudes towards technology between internet users and non-internet users is widening, the Oxford Internet Survey 2009 found that though 84 per cent of British internet users are extremely confident with new technology, more than half of non-users of the internet distrust them more than they have since 2003, when the survey began.
Distressingly for a Labour government which has invested heavily in Britain's online infrastructure, figures suggest socioeconomic factors might be a significant influence on use of the internet, with twice as many people from higher than lower income demographics regularly surfing the web. Suggesting this trend may in fact be helping to entrench privilege, the study's authors conclude that the internet is a valuable resource for users "in ways that could well give advantages to them over those who choose not to use the internet."
The study also found a gender disparity in attitudes to new technologies with a greater number of the women surveyed distrusting new technologies. There were some positive signs however, which suggested that while negative attitudes remain, the proportion of Britons of each gender who use the internet is almost equal after a long term disparity.
Professor Dutton, Director of the Oxford Internet Institute, who were responsible for producing the study questioned the Government's focus on eliminating the physical rather than psychological barriers to wider use of the internet. "Digital Britain is heavily focused on government investment in infrastructures and pilot projects, supported in part by a tax on fixed copper lines and a governmental 'Digital Delivery Agency", he commented. "The OxIS 2009 survey indicates that the major issues are neither infrastructures nor innovation. The key concerns are the attitudes and beliefs of individuals uninterested in the Internet. It will be far less expensive and more effective to focus on informing those who think the Internet is irrelevant to their lives than on building information super-highway projects in the 21st Century."
Dr Ellen Hesper, a Research Fellow and UK Government Special Advisor on digital inclusion who helped write the report, summed up the challenges facing efforts to increase participation. "Given the internet's increasing centrality to everyday life, if Britain is to fulfill government aspirations to become the digital capital of the world, policy makers need to explore how they can engage the considerable section of the population that has negative attitudes towards the Internet, " she said. "It is not just an issue of access to the technology."