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Digital Divides and Potential Futures

Good to see the digital divide getting some airing of late.  Firstly The Observer showed that girls can be at least as geeky as boys, blowing the myth of a gender specific hot wired physiological need for all things tech and shiny.  Alice, Paula, Molly  and a world of others have been proving that for yonks.  And there were signs of  geekgirl too at OpenTech.  Though dominated by unkempt men there were a number of ladies there who outgeeked and outdressed the blokes, adding more than a touch of glamour.  Why are boy geeks so badly dressed? A subculture with a uniform that values black, more black, tired trainers and baggy shapeless t-shirts [and the odd kilt] is hardly one worth aspiring too.  They fill that much needed sartorial vacuum between gothdom and west coast hippy non-chic.

Secondly, the IPPR published its report on the digital divide on Friday.  Not half as interesting as girlgeeks, but it did tackle the future of British Society in a digital age. No mean feat.   I had high hopes for this report not least because Matt Locke has been one of the main consultants and he knows his shit.  And it does not disappoint.  Will Davies has written a very comprehensive and readable thesis which offers a vision of how we could modernise and move forward economically, politically and socially. 

The research done around the implementation of ICT and Britain’s competitiveness came as a surprise to me, for no matter how much the UK economy is presently seen as strong relative to [a weak] Europe, we clearly have our work cut out:

The UK is currently ranked the fifth most  ‘e-ready’ economy in the world, judged in terms of its infrastructure, uptake of online services and e-government practices.12And yet output per hour in the UK is still twenty-five per cent lower than in the Netherlands, eight per cent lower than in Germany and eleven per cent lower than in France – countries that are ranked eighth, twelfth and nineteenth respectively for ‘e-readiness’.13This discrepancy between infrastructural and economic progress is a common feature of Britain’s current technological capacity.

Offshoring is one key issue – highlighted by Ben Hammersley – as is the threat of a productivity deficit.  Going to work in Sheffield everyday I pass an area that is being hailed as a innovation area – but all I see are Victorian factories with antiquated machinery.  Pockets of ICT implementation and innovation do exist but they are very much the exception. So how can we lower the barriers to implementation?

One way is to invest in the education and we have done, a lot. However, Will cites a British sociologist Neil Selwyn who has found that educational use of the internet is far lower than policy makers believe.  Does the idea of ‘play’ here become important?  Playing with this technology and becoming competent in its use and misuse is surely all helpful no matter what the actual content is… I think this is backed up by William’s first ‘modernising’ economic ‘principle’:

The difficulty has been that technological innovation is tangible and looks like a solution, whereas social innovation (in management and training) is intangible and looks like a problem. It is absolutely essential that large organisations cease to view ICT as a form of innovation in its own right, and start to place it – and cost it – in its appropriate social context.

Excellent. Technology is itself not the answer, or solution to anything other than a dent in your balance sheet or bank account.  This is where the inherent ‘social’ nature of technology comes through.  It’s what you do with this technology that matters – how you use it.  Having said that you have to want it in the first place – you have to aspire to want what it can potentially deliver… and for many it’s just not delivering anything that they think they want or need.  Another stumbling block may be the level of knowledge that is perceived to be required to ‘operate’ in this geek world:

The important realisation has now been made that the digital divide is a symptom of economic inequality, and not a cause, and hence exclusion from technological networks tends to go hand in hand with a variety of other forms of exclusion. These include: low skills; lack of confidence in ICT use and general literacy; lack of informal technical support (i.e. friends and family with good skills); and lack of social reasons to use ICT (e.g. if one’s peers are not using email, for instance, then that removes much of the incentive to use it). For these reasons, it is not helpful to carry on viewing the digital divide in isolation from other forms of exclusion.  Yet it is worth noting that cost of telecommunications does not represent the biggest barrier to usage. Low-income households spend only £6 less per month on communications technology than the UK average, but are still less likely to have home internet access. Equally, age remains the biggest determinant of whether someone is likely to use ICT. What we need to assess is when access to technology ceases to be a consumer good, and becomes some form of civic entitlement

Ah, civic entitlement.  When does not being part of the information superhighway start to affect your ability to partake in democracy at whatever level.  Well, I think that world is not too far away.  However, trying to persuade people that active democracy is worth paying for is another matter even if it is only 6 BPS per month. 

However, as Will goes on to argue the ways through which democracy is played out are changing.  It’s becoming more interesting, more public.   That’s a public with a lower case ‘p’ though and there’s the rub.  In an age of abundent media you get a proliferation of people talking but the conversation remains relatively private – community based at best rather than being truly Public with a capital ‘P’.

If these conversations and communities are going to have any effect, any ‘bite’, then some sort of marriage or regulation is, argues, Will, necessary.  So what is community? 

We all occupy both place-based and non-place-based communities. The former are otherwise known as neighbourhoods, while the latter tend to be cultural phenomena, such as sporting affiliation, religion, and professional networks. Class plays an important part in which one is more important to us, with middle-class people tending to be more mobile and having more long-distance social connections than working-class people. Wealth tends to result in a weaker relationship to place, or at least to a single place – evidently elites are still dependent on exclusive ‘hubs’ in which to meet face to face. However, even those who are strongly embedded in their own neighbourhood will have interests and contacts beyond those geographic confines. These are what might be called ‘communities of interest’: networks, associations or groups that are defined culturally rather than geographically. 

Wow.  A whole library of sociological thought reduced to a paragraph!  Community, in other words is not one thing – it comes in all shapes and sizes.  Consequently Will urges some caution in championing some of the early adopter communities as models for a civic realm.   We need to get the mass of people up to speeed first otherwise we’ll not have a democracy at all but a bunch of geeks talking amongst themselves and this forms the first of the social principles:

1: Democratic structures should not introduce more technological interactivity than the constitution can sustain democratically.

The second principle cut to the need to get more marriages of communities, to get people conversing out of their private realm and into the public one…   

2: e-democracy should draw people into the public realm, not collapse the public realm into the home

[because] ICT is often most effectively integrated into our everyday lives when it enables us to avoid engaging with institutions, strangers or public spaces

This is, I think, particularly important.  Too often I see people presuming that there is something inherently interactive, democratic or community spirited about new technology and this is a dangerous myth. 

Anyway the report up to this point was spot on.  But as I read on to the other principles [and you should read them] the idea of regulation comes to the fore.  It’s inevitable that some form of regulation would be required I suppose but my idea of what that might entail was old school.  Will is new school judging by this example of what new forms of ‘regulation’ could mean:

The BBC should develop a BBC Franchise, whereby social enterprises can apply to borrow a variant of the BBC logo, and have BBC content (in particular, news) syndicated to them under the Creative Archive licence. The best vehicle for a franchised BBC outlet would be the forthcoming Community Interest Company model.

Cool!  And this offset some of the recent criticism the BBC has got about it’s community based approach to the future from the likes of the Newspaper Society.