Living on the Edge: Digital Exclusion and Invisible People

Since arriving in China and discovering that credit cards aren’t accepted I’ve been thinking a great deal about technology.

Technology makes my life easier than it was twenty years ago.

I’ve used an array of websites to book train tickets and accommodation, arrange day trips and visas. Some of these involve automated systems and some involve regular interaction with real people.

I can keep in touch with friends and family through social media, internet phone calls, emails and this blog. I can do all of this for free (unless you consider the monthly payment for the phone of course).

Twenty years ago when I set off on my first travelling adventure it was: “See you in a month. I’ll send a postcard. Yes, of course I’ll call you… if I can find a payphone”.

Different times.

I’ve been able to work around the Great Firewall of China but installing VPNs on my phone and for someone so reliant on technology, that has been essential.

However, the main issue for me in China (and it’s minor in the scheme of things as I am only here for a month) has been not being able to use credit cards.

They just aren’t accepted.

Payment is via mobile phone and I can’t use mine – for a number of reasons but primarily because I don’t have a Chinese bank account.

If the system can’t see you, you are invisible.

As I said, I’m only here for a month. What happens for people who live here?

Expats from overseas set up bank accounts but my concern is in relation to digital exclusion.

In my last job, my team were working on digital inclusion but I am going to use exclusion because this invisibility in the system feels like being excluded from daily life.

Digital Inclusion refers to the activities necessary to ensure that all individuals and communities, including the most disadvantaged, have access to and use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).  This includes 5 elements: 1) affordable, robust broadband internet service; 2) internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of the user; 3) access to digital literacy training; 4) quality technical support; and 5) applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation and collaboration. Digital Inclusion must evolve as technology advances. Digital Inclusion requires intentional strategies and investments to reduce and eliminate historical, institutional and structural barriers to access and use technology.

I’m not discussing privacy and anonymity issues though they are incredibly important. I’m talking about being excluded from services that make day to day living easier.

For example, walking by the Lake in Hangzhou yesterday, I passed a snacks vending machine that only accepted payment by phone.

Yes, I am using cash but… in Xi’an I went to a coffee shop and the vendor had to go to another store to find change for me. His business was focused solely on payment by phone.

How are you going to pay for this?

China has moved rapidly towards a cashless society in a short period of time.

An article in January 2018 states that credit cards were still a popular method of payment. Less than 18 months later they are virtually unusable – five star hotels, apparently and the hostel where I stayed in Shanghai.

Mobile payments have made major inroads as a medium of settlement in Chinese cities. Aside from convenience stores, shopping malls, and fine dinning, mobile payments are even the norm among vegetable markets and other small scale vendors.

At every street market I have visited, mobile payments are preferred.

By December 2018, the internet penetration rate in Chinese urban areas topped at 74.6%; while, in rural areas, it only rose to 38.4%. More strikingly, there are still 562 million people — mostly distributed in rural areas — who are digitally excluded.

For the people who have been left out, a survey reveals that there are two major reasons for the lack of digital knowledge: inadequate skills (54.0%), and low levels of education (33.4%).

I’ve asked people here what happens to people who aren’t as confident with technology or don’t have a mobile phone that can do everything required?

I’ve been looked at as if I have two heads… “Everyone has a mobile phone”.

Not all older people do. I’ve seen them at railway stations.

“Oh. Well. Their families will help them”.

Being digitally excluded contributes to and reinforces inequalities, including health inequalities.

Does this mean that we need to have digital carers for people who are not ‘tech savvy’, ‘unable to engage’ or unable to afford the cost of the equipment (phone, internet package, bank account)? This is not a flippant question.

If you are not connected to the cashless system how do you navigate your way through society and daily life?

If you cannot participate in this increasingly digital society, you are missing out on cheaper services (leisure, utilities, health, etc), work opportunities, education options, benefits and support… and, in a horrific example from India (if these issues are not already disturbing), food.

China’s experience of digital reach, stronger in the cities than in rural areas, is similar to most parts of the world. But even where the uptake is high, that is still a quarter of the population that is digitally excluded.

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