In her home, not far south of Evreux in Normandy, in a small town as isolated as it is charming, Cécile* awaits us. At the end of a shady cul-de-sac, with ivy running wild on decrepit walls on both sides, Cécile is waiting for us with a smile on her face. Relieved to have found the right house, we went in.
“So, what did you want to talk about again?” she asks innocently yet disingenuously. “Oh yes, computer illiteracy.”
A relative neologism to describe the inability to use computers, it does not really apply to Cécile. However, it does describe the circumstances affecting a ridiculously high 17% of the French population. In a world constantly hyping the digital transition to businesses and encouraging everyone to avail themselves of the devices necessary to make the transition work, the reality is that nearly 14 million people in France experience difficulties using computers and digital devices.
A problem affecting daily life
Cécile lives in one of the 21 districts of Normandy without a mobile signal. So finding out that in 2018, the French government had initiated a plan to identify dead zones and require 4G to be installed, was “a bit of a relief” to her. Almost four years later, she admits that she “hasn’t seen much progress day-to-day”.
The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated how crucial it is for citizens and businesses to be connected and to be able to interact with each other online
Living in a dead zone is a “problem every day”. The inability to get a signal inside her home means that for Cécile, her mobile is not especially useful once she gets past her town’s boundary sign.
Yet technology has surprised her (or thumbed its nose at her, as she sees it), as she recently realised that for some reason, she can now get “one or two bars” in one corner of the living room. The eternal optimist, she sees it as “a sign that things are starting to change”.
The various confinements that France has gone through have highlighted technological disparities that have surprised a substantial number of French people. For Cécile, the series of lockdowns was “extremely difficult”.
To keep in touch with friends and family, and be able to use a stable internet connection, she has to go to an internet café about 20 miles from her home.
“For me, it was a bit like a double lockdown. I had to stay at home, completely cut off from the outside world. I saw it as a kind of exile, or prison sentence.”
Pour Cécile, qui ne se considère pas comme “totalement larguée” par les nouvelles technologies, cette situation n’a que trop duré. Elle a d’ailleurs décidé de mettre sa maison en vente, même si elle ne s’attend pas à “des offres mirobolantes, compte tenu du fait que je vis effectivement dans une zone blanche, coupée du monde”.
For Cécile, who does not consider herself to be “totally lost” with the new technologies, this situation has gone on too long. So she decided to sell her house, although she didn’t expect to receive “some stupendous offers, bearing in mind I pretty much live in a dead zone, cut off from the world.”
Despite this, she considers herself “lucky” to be independent and to be able to travel around to talk, see people, and go out. “I don't know what it would have been like if I was older or if I had had problems with independence or a disability. Knowing that there is a way to get in touch with other people, to be able to get your admin done, even if it is almost 20 miles away, is a lifesaver.”
A wider problem
Saying that the problem of computer literacy is solely a French issue would be wrong. It’s actually quite the opposite.
A report issued in 2021 by the European Commission suggested that almost half of the EU population (42%) was unable to perform basic tasks such as connect to the wifi network or use websites.
In and of itself, this constitutes a major problem. But the issue gets even bigger when the EU estimates that nine out of 10 future jobs will require some digital skills.
No wonder why the European Commission president Ursual von der Leyen made the fight against computer illiteracy one of her priorities.
Unsurprisingly, much like in France, the COVID-19 pandemic and the various lockdowns it triggered all over Europe and the world, has shed a light on computer illiteracy, in ways and forms one could have never imagined. With people being forced to stay at home to work, live, meet with families and friends, understanding technology and learning to cope with it was for the first time not an option, but an obligation. This much is confirmed by Margrethe Vestager:
“The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated how crucial it is for citizens and businesses to be connected and to be able to interact with each other online. We will continue to work with Member States to identify areas where more investment is needed so that all Europeans can benefit from digital services and innovations”
Digital inclusion as a miracle cure
The question then arises: How to help EUropean computers illiterate to rise above the problems and finally tackle the issue of computer illiteracy once and for all.
Well, all heads can be turned towards France. €250 million of France’s Covid-19 crisis recovery plan has been allocated to bridging the digital divide and increasing digital inclusion, with €200 million earmarked for the deployment of 4,000 digital advisors to educate people in the use of computing devices and the Internet.
The Covid-19 crisis has obviously brought to light those left behind by the digital transition, but the gradual digitisation of public services has not worked in favour of those sidelined in this way:
“How can you do your tax return online when you don’t have access to a decent network?” Cécile asks. She continues: “How can you update your entitlements with the job centre? How can you buy a ticket online? How can you make a payment?”
All these administrative tasks, which for everyone are mere formalities, become for Cécile, and everyone else suffering from dead zones, a “real assault course”.
The French government is also encouraging those who provide digital support solution, such as the “aidants connect” service for carers to securely complete various official procedures on behalf of patients, although Cécile views it as more like the “first few steps of a 40k-run”.
However, since 2009, figures on computer illiteracy have fallen continuously. In 2009, just 5% of those aged 75 and over used the internet every day. The proportion now stands at 19%.
“Encouraging” figures in Cécile’s view. With a burst of optimism, she starts to imagine a day when a third signal bar appears on her mobile.
*In accordance with her wishes, we have changed the name of our interviewee.