31 Aug The Cost of Bringing the World to the World
Debbie Gainsford didn’t imagine she would have to scan a QR code to request towels that should have already been in the bathroom of her London hotel room. She had checked in at Ibis hotel in Aldgate, to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers on June 26 and when she checked in reception told her to scan a QR code if she had any issues.
Upon scanning the code, the tired 43-year-old Gainsford received a message that the housekeeping wasn’t working at (10:30 pm) when she had initially requested the towels.
She clicked a link that directed her to the hotel’s WhatsApp where someone at the other end, read but didn’t respond to her text. She messaged again. The reply ‘go down nine floors to pick up her towels.’ “Paying £120 for the night, I wasn’t expecting to have that type of experience in a hotel,” she says. It was less room service and no customer service. It was self-service.
Unfortunately, Gainsford isn’t the only person to experience the new trend in “customer service”.
The Digital Revolution
Even before the pandemic, digital alternatives have been replacing people. It started with self-service gas stations, moving forwards to self-service grocery lines, and now we have many bars and restaurants worldwide using QR codes, apps, and web forms instead of physical menus, and waitstaff. App-based chatbots telling people when they can visit long-closed restaurants at Walt Disney World in Florida etc., and unknown entities checking the status of our Amazon and Walmart orders that never seem to arrive.
Every revolution comes with its own set of problems, and the technological revolution is no different. The digital world is fast-moving. It has little tolerance for those that don’t or won’t comply, mainly the poor and the elderly. Instead of working to make these advancements work to assist those with less “technologically savvy”, the inclusivity seems to be shunning them, making them irrelevant because they don’t understand how smart their phone is or why the number sign is suddenly called a hashtag.
To some, these frustrations seem inconsequential. But to many, like Gainsford, the idea that in order to get clean towels you have to go through an app, takes the service out of business. The days of going to a bookstore are all but gone. Now you download the e-book on your tablet. Record stores are quaint because music is offered through apps, and McDonald’s customers are goaded by banks of self-service kiosks, eliminating the person behind the counter. For businesses, such changes are often seen as more efficient and an improvement—but the reality is more complicated.
The digital alternatives have created an apparent dichotomy as those on the analog or in-person side are seen to be on the “wrong side” are “boomers” or antiques. The growing inconvenience for these people on the wrong side is establishing a new class system.
An estimated 2.9 billion people—37 percent of the world’s population—have never used the internet, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations’ IT agency.
While it was reported by ITU that 782 million people got online for the first time between 2019 and 2021, it’s less about being coaxed online and more about being forced. Prices for phones and the internet are becoming cheaper by the day, but what is the real cost?
According to one financial services company, the number of bank branches in the USA has fallen by 6.5 percent since 2012. The trend is similar in the UK, where the number of bank and building society branches fell by a third between 2012 and 2021.
To make matters worse for those on the wrong side of the divide, many banks are luring customers toward apps by offering better rates for those willing—or able—to open digital savings accounts. “Going green” means no more printed statements, fewer printed checks, and much less actual cash in the system.
A good example is Natwest: a major retail and commercial bank in the UK, owned by RBS. It has a 3.3 percent interest rate on an app-only digital savings account, compared to a 0.1 percent interest rate on its in-branch instant saver account. More bad news for the poor and especially older people who are less likely to own smartphones.
The unrelenting drive to digitize key services during the pandemic birthed out a phrase the ITU called “Covid connectivity boost”.
When you consider the cost of living in the USA, you need to consider the affordability of being connected. “There is an access problem,” says Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business, The Fletcher School at Tufts University. “And then there is an affordability problem.” The median price of broadband in the US is around $80 a month, according to FCC data, meaning good quality, and high-speed internet is out of the reach of many. “You combine access and affordability, and you have large parts of the country that are not using the internet at broadband speeds,” says Chakravorti.
Hannah Smethurst, a trainee solicitor, and research assistant specializing in digital law at Thorntons Law said “It’s not just an age thing, it’s an economic background thing.”
Looking critically at the way things are panning out in the world of today when most essential services are shifting online, it is self-evident that we are inevitably inching closer to what’s referred to as “the internet of things”. We are moving at a pace where internet access and smartphone costs will be so prevalent and cheap that we’ll forget about the pre-digital era.
More than a million households across the UK struggle to pay their broadband bills, according to telecoms regulator Ofcom, a figure that translates to one in 10 low-income households having a poor connection to the digital world we now find ourselves living in.
Humans have basic things they need to survive, food, water, clothing, and shelter. Now add a smartphone, basic broadband, and the internet to the list. Having basic broadband and mobile internet has become what Chakravorti calls “table stakes.” Without access, you can’t survive or in some cases even exist.
This is one challenge the US government has acknowledged. The representatives have launched a $45 billion initiative to bring high-speed internet to everyone in America. However, in Chakravorti’s opinion, an estimate of $240 billion will be needed to bridge the digital infrastructure gap in the US.
It’s not just the internet. Trying to navigate life without a smartphone is becoming increasingly difficult.
According to Pew Research Centre, while 97 percent of Americans own a cell phone, only 85 percent have a smartphone. And while 92 percent of people in the UK own a smartphone, research by Deloitte suggests that around one in 10 Britons still own a regular cell phone. “I’m not saying that these things are bad,” she says. “It’s that the exclusivity of these things is ostracizing people from society.”
The impact of exclusively allowing access to many essential services digitally is being felt in many areas. Driving farther to a physical bank branch now that local ones have disappeared, needing internet access to work or school children at home, or even visiting your doctor. “Internet availability was one key factor in whether people survived the pandemic or not,” Chakravorty says. When Chakravorty and his colleagues at Digital Planet analyzed data, they found out that 1 percent increase in broadband access across the US resulted in a 0.1 percent decline in Covid mortality rates, which is partly a result of access to health care. Since the start of 2022, 38 percent of Americans have had a telehealth appointment, up from 0.7 percent in 2019.
So, how do we fix the problem without leaving people behind?
Let’s take a cue from New Zealand (NZ), a country that has made some headway in its digital inclusion blueprint since 2019. The first thing they did was to educate and encourage those in marginalized communities to get online. Upon discovering the barriers they face in adopting technology, they worked tirelessly and are still working to overcome them.
One area the New Zealand government focused the indigenous population. Some of the actions taken so far have included opening hubs that act as internet education bases in addition to co-working hubs, at a cost of NZ$34 million ($20 million), and ensuring that any data used to access key governmental websites through mobile connections is free to those who need to access it.
New Zealand saw the problem and started to solve it almost instantly. Other countries haven’t acted as quickly to close the divide. But there is hope.
When Smethurst was asked, she suggested that two things need to be done. First, businesses need to be incentivized to continue to offer good offline alternatives. “If you’re going to mandate that restaurants provide calorie information [a UK legal requirement], I don’t understand why you can’t say they must, at least somewhere, have physical menus,” she says. Second, governments must intervene in every way possible to help reduce the cost of accessing digital services in any way possible and put in place infrastructures that will ensure the smooth running of these gateways. For medical services and call centers, avoiding digital creep is more challenging because it’s often introduced as a way of avoiding overwork, underpayment, and understaffing. Government intervention can lessen the impact of digital creep. Going back to New Zealand, its government is in discussion with fiber providers to install ultrafast broadband in social housing. Bringing the world to their world.