Reflections on what might have been
In a truly digital society there is no reason why any digitally included person should not participate in society, or in the economy. Yet, because we organise ourselves on an industrial basis those who cannot join the mass movement to centres of production on a daily basis are excluded from the economy and relegated to a dependency on the state. This represents a social failing on an unimaginable scale and at the same time a waste of talent which represents a cost to society and the economy.
The organisation of society on an industrial basis in a digital world means that innovation has become associated with centres of excellence fuelled by the idea of agglomeration of like minded individuals in a creative environment. This ignores the potential for individuals adding value from a distance, the contribution of niche experts and the knowledge of communities that are peripheral to the core. It is not enough that we focus large resources on the centre we also take resources away from the periphery in order to feed the monster that is the city region. The periphery becomes devalued and its denizens come to accept second best as the best that they can expect. Excluded by default because they are perceived as being economically unviable and because their potential contribution is undervalued.
In a truly digital world neither of these things should be the case. Digital inclusion enables both economic participation, innovation and social justice. Despite the obvious society persists in promoting a dependency culture for those individuals and communities who are not able to participate because of this industrial age mentality. The desire to cling to the industrial power base can be seen in the attempts to control the channels of distribution of digital content in the name of digital rights and protecting the rights of the producer. We are prepared to sacrifice social freedoms in the name of an outdated economic model.
In a digital world communities are empowered. The old political model is being challenged, communities are demanding transparency and a voice that is heard. Despite this, the state seeks to maintain a dependency model in which digital inclusion is a means to create efficiencies and to provide access to services to those that most need them. In a truly digital world the demand for services could be less. What is more, valued communities not communities marginalised by geographical distance from the core, could take over many of the services that the state seeks to cut. Instead the desire to maintain the dependency culture to retain a hierarchy which dispenses services instead of enabling community activism denies the potential that a truly digital society can bring.
It is against this backdrop of social and economic myopia that I have concerns about our approaches to digital inclusion. I fear that Digital Inclusion has become a parochial activity where we have lost sight of the potential for being digital to unleash the creative human spirit and to break down the barriers between people. A world where creativity is the accepted norm. Instead we have to create lines of demarcation between the Netaratti and the digitally unwashed so that we might hand down the benefits of digital inclusion whilst we ourselves remain a digital veneer on the industrial society. Who in the modern world needs to ask “What does digital inclusion mean?” when they should be asking what are the consequences for society of digital exclusion.
Unless we see digital inclusion in terms other than an industrial society then the fears of Jaron Lanier will be perpetuated. Lanier describes a spiritual failure where we redirect ideas of hope away from people and towards gadgets; a behavioural failure in which we promote anonymity and crowd behaviour and he describes an economic failure which is obsessed with the idea of free. Before we accuse Lanier of overstating the case remember that 2009 became the year of the social media guru, the i-phone was described as the gadget that everybody would have and “we” were described as the new government. The Neteratti are a small, well educated, middle class group and while intentions may be good I think it is time to re-examine the values that underpin the digital inclusion movement. Otherwise we may be seeking to include only to perpetuate the industrial status quo rather than to create a digital society in which each and every individual can fulfil their potential.