File image: Wesley Diphoko, Head of the Independent Digital Lab. (IOL).
CAPE TOWN - “You can only apply online” has become a standard response for institutions that are supposed to be accessible to the general public.

Schools, universities and others in the quest to be modern are opting for online access and limiting access for offline and physical means of access.

Commercial entities such as banks likewise are going online in order to cut costs. For them online access is the future.

The recent outcry by some people who struggled to gain online access should serve as a red flag for institutions pursuing access only through online and digital means to pause and reflect about this approach.

One has to look no further than the current electricity challenge in South Africa to see the dangers in this approach. With rolling blackouts everything comes to a standstill.

The electricity challenge in South Africa shows us that there’s no wisdom in running purely with systems that are powered by electricity.

Society has become so dependent on electricity that when it fails it almost feels as if it’s the end of the world.

As society adopts internet of everything, there’s a need to design for failure and imperfection - a smart design that takes into account that as imperfect beings we will create imperfect systems that will fail at some point.

Those who adopt computer systems have to take this factor into account.

At times connectivity will be poor and fail, resulting in some people having limited access. Thus it is vital to still have offline access that complements online access.

“The system is down” should not be part of the language of government and business institutions that are meant to serve society. The possibility of system failure should be built into the architecture of services that are provided to society.

The media offers us an important lesson in this regard. Although the media industry is moving towards enabling access through digital means, there’s a realisation that print still matters to enable access to critical information. Smart media entities realise there’s a place for digital and there’s a special place for print.

This understanding in the media industry has ensured that many today can still access news, even when they cannot afford the internet due to the high cost of data.

Society is moving with speed towards the Internet of Everything. We are headed towards a future where accessing your own house will require a subscription to a technology giant such as Google. We are moving towards a future where technology companies will build cities and roads and enable access and usage based on availability of connectivity.

Society needs to think now about what happens when all these things fail and what happens when people are denied access due to lack of affordability of digital systems.

There’s still time to correct the move towards making everything digital. There’s still an opportunity to design a future that will ensure that life does not stop when technology systems fail.

For now, society must not normalise a situation where people are denied access by the online and digital-only brigade. The future can be a mix of both.

Wesley Diphoko writes about technology, innovation and its impact on society. Follow him on Twitter via @Wesley Diphoko

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