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Fintan O’Toole: No one is safe when half of us are digitally illiterate

The lack of basic online skills in our population is now both a marker and a driver of social inequality

There are two Irelands. And one of them is digitally illiterate. We know that criminals now have vast amounts of information on Irish citizens, stolen in the hacking of the HSE. We also know that a very large proportion of those citizens have poor online skills. This is not a cheery combination.

Contemporary Ireland is characterised above all by its doubleness. Because of its peculiar path to development, it has parallel universes. There is a largely imported high-tech economy, home to 16 of the top 20 global technology firms. And there is an indigenous society in which large numbers of people are barely able to function in the world those firms create.

Inequality is not just about money. It affects everything. One of the things it shapes is the paradox of Ireland as a leading-edge digital economy that has managed to leave very many of its people without basic digital literacy.

On the one hand, we are awash with high-tech devices. About 92 per cent of the population has access to the internet. Nineteen out of every 20 adults own a smartphone. We check them on average 50 times a day. Irish people use social media more than any other Europeans.


Ireland ranks sixth out of the 27 EU member states in the Digital Economy and Society Index compiled every year by the EU Commission. Broadband connectivity is still notoriously bad and expensive, but Irish small businesses have nonetheless adapted to e-commerce very well. This all looks fine.

Yet we have a huge problem with basic digital skills. We have more people with specialist knowledge than most European countries. We also have more people with almost no knowledge at all.

Just 53 per cent of Irish people have “at least basic digital skills”. This ranks us 18th in the EU. If you consider that we have one of the youngest populations in the EU and one of the highest levels of tertiary education, this performance is all the more woeful.

The digital divide is not just about age. It is easy to assume that the problem is with those who were born too long before the IT revolution and who have never managed to catch up. This is partly true. But research by Accenture last year found that one in five 18- to 34-year olds described their digital skills as "average" or below. Of the 26 per cent of respondents who said they had never shopped online, almost a third were under 55.

A critical part of the explanation is the truth that dare not speak its name: social class. Only 28 per cent of ABC1s (lower to upper middle class) describe themselves as having “average” or “below average” digital skills, but that figure rises to 50 per cent amongst C2DEs (skilled and non-skilled working class).

Class is very strongly connected, of course, to education. And, unsurprisingly, people who finished their education at Leaving Cert level or earlier are very heavily represented among those with poor digital skills.

But digital illiteracy doesn’t just reflect the class system. It is also reinforcing and reproducing it. About 85 per cent of all jobs in the EU need at least a basic level of digital skills and 70 per cent require at least a moderate competence in IT.

If you are not confident working online, you are less likely to get a good job. You are more likely to be in a job that is low paid and precarious or that will be wiped out by automation. This form of inequality is self-sustaining.

Both the pandemic and the cyberattack have shown us that, while we are all vulnerable, some are much more vulnerable than others

And now, the pandemic has made things much worse. Children in households where there are poor digital skills have been hugely disadvantaged in online learning. People who have been able to function online have, for the most part, been able to keep their jobs and work remotely. People who are poorly connected and lacking in digital skills are much more likely to have been thrown out of work. Many of those jobs may not come back even when the pandemic is over.

We’re at a point where the effects of digital exclusion are becoming exponential. The more both work and learning shift online, the more those who are not literate in the language of that online world will be pushed out of both. The more services like healthcare move into the digital space, the harder it will be for the people who most need those services to get access to them.

Vulnerable citizens

What also emerges from research – and again it is no great surprise – is that those with poor digital skills are much more vulnerable to both fake news and to online scams. Seventy per cent of Irish people who finished their education at second level or below are “not confident identifying fake or unreliable information” online.

These are obviously the citizens who are most at risk from the cybercriminals who presumably now have access to a great deal of information about them. They are also most at risk from conspiracy theories about the pandemic. One of the things the State needs to be thinking about with some urgency is how to reach them and help them to protect themselves.

Apart from this immediate threat, though, Government needs to take seriously the gap in digital literacy within the population. It has become both a marker and a driver of social inequality.

At the moment, public policy on digital skills is mostly concerned with the high end of the IT pyramid. It is primarily about trying to produce more and more graduates with the expertise that the tech industries need, and to attract immigrants with similar skills.

Essential skills

This is as it should be. But it is largely irrelevant to the other half of the population that lacks the skills to use the technology, let alone to produce it.

It is not that this problem is unrecognised. The National Skills Strategy says that “Technology is one of the key drivers of change and improved digital skills will be vital for Ireland’s future”, not just in filling high-end IT jobs but “more widely as a basic core competence”.

The National Adult Literacy Agency now lists digital skills along with literacy and numeracy as "essential for even minimal engagement in society as a citizen, consumer, parent or employee".

Hence the State has been running what’s called the Digital Skills for Citizens Grant Scheme. It gives money to voluntary bodies to run courses. The total budget allocated to the scheme is all of €2.2 million a year. There are no zeros missing in that figure.

Both the pandemic and the cyberattack have shown us that, while we are all vulnerable, some are much more vulnerable than others. Without digital skills, it is increasingly hard to be well informed, to interact with public and health services and to protect yourself online. In a society where half the population can’t do these things, no one is safe until everyone is safe.