Recently, a tutor from my Journalism MA course asked our class to write a blog on ’24 hours without the internet’. This followed a four hour workshop on how journalists can use social media. I suppose the idea was to get us thinking in depth about the role the internet plays in receiving and imparting information, how dependent upon it we’ve become for the completion of everyday activities such as shopping, banking, and ultimately what the implications are for journalists. We might even finish with some half-baked postmodernist hypothesis about how the internet has changed how we behave and interact as human beings, or how technology has both liberated us and imprisoned us. Or something. I don’t know, I’m making it up.
Anyway, I didn’t do it; you can draw your own conclusions from that. I suppose I am dependent upon the internet to some extent. Needless to say, it is incredibly useful for research, keeping up to date with the news, activism, organising things with friends and procrastinating. There wasn’t a day in the week when one of these things didn’t demand that I access the internet, and not even the task of having to write a blog on the subject could give me the motivation to try and find a way around that. Oh well.
I was reminded, though, of something altogether more frightening: Sunderland city council is set to close nine out of its twenty libraries. Many of those libraries are located in the more deprived areas of that city. One of the more serious implications of this is that a number of Sunderland’s residents will very shortly find themselves deprived of easy internet access.
A recent statistical bulletin from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that in 2013 approximately 83% of UK households had some form of internet access. This is up from 80% in 2012, and the fact that this figure is increasing is often used as justification for closing libraries. But for the 17% of households still without internet access, a local library is vital.
The loss of easy internet access means more than the loss of facebook, free downloads and pictures of cats. The same ONS report indicates that of the four million households without internet access, around 13% of them were unable to connect due the expense. It also tells us that
“In 2013, two thirds (67%) of unemployed adults had looked for a job or submitted a job application online. Just over half of unemployed adults (54%) reported that they had looked on the Internet for information about education, training or courses.”
This isn’t necessarily a trend that’s driven solely by the choice of the individual jobseekers. A look at any jobseekers’ website, including that of the Jobcentre Plus, will show that the majority of jobs advertised require the applicant to apply online.
A problem should now be presenting itself, the essence of which is outlined in this quote from a protester in a recent article in the Sunderland Echo:
“I go [to the library] every day to use the computers to look for work and there’s usually about 50 people in.
“I would struggle to get into town every day to use the central library and if I can’t look for work it will affect my job seeker’s allowance.”
If access to the internet is important for jobseekers currently, it’s about to become absolutely vital. The government is in the process of replacing a number of benefits, including Jobseekers Allowance, with the ‘Universal Credit’. This can only be claimed online. Moreover, given that this new scheme is also intended to replace Income-related Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support, Working Tax Credits, Child Tax Credits and Housing Benefit, the loss of easy internet access through the closure of local libraries is set to affect more than just jobseekers, but those in work and those with children as well.
On one level, this situation can be attributed to lack of foresight from the government, or even just misfortune. Changes to the benefit system are implemented by the DWP, whereas the closure of libraries is a decision taken by the local council; those without internet access, but who desperately need it, have fallen through the cracks. But the decision to cut funding for local authorities is made by central government, and the rhetoric used by Iain Duncan-Smith, Osborne and Cameron should leave us in no doubt as to their desire to punish benefit claimants and dismantle the welfare state. Both of these are the result of a determination to make the poorest and most vulnerable people in society pay for a crisis that they didn’t cause.
I began this post with deliberately abstract and ridiculous musings on the loss of the internet. For many people, this issue is much more concrete.
The full ONS report can be viewed here: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/rdit2/internet-access—households-and-individuals/2013/index.html
The Sunderland Echo article can be found here: http://www.sunderlandecho.com/news/hands-off-our-libraries-campaigners-march-through-sunderland-in-fight-against-service-cuts-1-6004126
What the government has to say about Universal Credit can be found here :https://www.gov.uk/universal-credit/overview.
A few relevant blogs.