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Digital illiteracy: the challenge of getting around without a smartphone

illestrisme numérique

6.7 million French people never connect to the internet. What are the solutions to help people find their way in the digital age?

Just 15 years ago, we simply talked to the person in the ticket office to purchase a train ticket. We could buy bus tickets on board or at the newsagent’s, and airlines printed out our boarding passes for us. You didn’t need to be a “digital native” to perform these day‑to‑day tasks.

Today, in the digital age, many people are finding themselves marginalised because they are digitally illiterate – that is to say, they don’t know how to use a computer, tablet, smartphone or automatic kiosk. According to a study by France Stratégie, digital illiteracy is more than just a minor issue: in fact, it affects 13 million French people, or 28% of the population over age 18.

2.5 million of those affected also suffer from illiteracy in the conventional sense of the word. And digital illiteracy tends to be a problem for older people who are often unfamiliar with the technology or have trouble keeping up with it. In fact, 62% of digitally illiterate people are retired.

A lack of mobility

So how can people with this problem get around when buying a bus or train ticket or paying car parking fees is a challenge in and of itself? “People affected by digital illiteracy have very little geographic mobility. They don’t leave their comfort zone,” says Hervé Fernandez, director of the French national agency for the fight against illiteracy (ANLCI). “They need help preparing for a trip. But the problem is that these people tend to hide the difficulties they’re facing because they feel ashamed.”

Promoting digital inclusion

There are three keys to breaking this vicious cycle: detect, inform, and educate. “To achieve digital inclusion, members of society suffering from digital illiteracy need help from other people who can do these tasks for them or guide them,” says Florence Gilbert, director of the charity Wimoov. Without help, these people can feel powerless. “Going digital can generate significant savings for companies and government agencies,” adds Hervé Fernandez. “What we’re asking is for some of these savings to be reinvested in physical, human support for the most vulnerable people.”

Last September, Mounir Mahjoubi, French Secretary of State for Digital Affairs, launched a national plan for digital inclusion, aiming to support and educate 1.5 million people in digital technology every year. To achieve this goal, the French government will be investing €5 million in local proponents of digital inclusion.

The national plan follows on from France’s “Digital Pass” scheme, whereby people struggling with digital literacy are given ten vouchers worth €10 each for digital training courses at public service centres (MSAPs) and public digital centres (EPNs).

Using technology to solve digital illiteracy

Another possible line of approach to make mobility options more broadly accessible is by developing visual aids, pictograms and colour coding in places such as train and tram stations.

Paradoxically, new technologies also provide effective solutions, by using voice recognition to help people with reading difficulties, for example. Florence Gilbert believes that digital mobility tools should be designed alongside people affected by digital illiteracy: “Like remote controls, if we can create tools that are accessible to the least agile members of society then we will have won the fight against digital exclusion.”

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