Reflections on what might have been
The question was posed to me recently: what would I rather do without, my laptop or my smart phone? What is it about this mobile device? You can’t live with it, you can’t live without it. As the ubiquity of the smart phone becomes a reality are we in danger of endowing it with the same cure all mystique as snake oil? Gartner’s predictions in “10 Mobile Technologies to Watch” highlight a trend in the ubiquity of mobile communications that will affect all of us. Let me put a stake in the ground and tie my banner to it. I am not anti smart phone; I depend on mine as much as anybody: train times, underground journeys, flight arrivals and departures, news, weather, e-mail, text and social media not forgetting maps and good old entertainment.
It is interesting to consider the way in which the smart phone defines a relationship with place. There was a time, not so long ago, when visiting a new place involved doing research. Train times, bus routes, street maps, what’s on and to some extent we still do but how long for? What I know about a city these days comes via my smart phone so it’s only a small step for what a city knows about me via my smart phone. If the city knows something about me via my smart phone then it will give me the information when I get there. My phone knows who I’m meeting and when, the city will tell my how to get there. My phone knows what I like to eat the city will tell me where to find it and so on. The smart phone becomes the mediator between me and place based on its knowledge of my habits, my schedule and my whereabouts. If a city doesn’t interact with my smart phone in some ways my expectations aren’t met, I’m sure I’m not alone and those cities that fail to realise that could be disappointing visitors who are far more important than I am in terms of the business economy. In 2005 William Mitchell at MIT Published a paper called “How Ubiquitous Connectivity Adds Value to Floor Space” which described how building intelligence into buildings added value both in terms of the use of the building and in terms of real estate value. Moving on the buildings talk to the city and the city talks to me. What’s missing here? The internet of course, unless by internet you mean infrastructure. The world wide web in this scenario is not a collection of web sites but a collection of things and once we understand that we start to understand how powerful the idea of an internet of things really is. In this scenario I am empowered because I can focus on things that matter instead of those things that are needed to get things done. My question is this: does the smart phone achieve this for every one?
While digital inclusion may be the use of digital technology to enhance the life chances of individuals there is a scale of engagement. This is not suggesting that things at one end of the scale are more or less important than those at the other. This follows the thinking of Macintosh 2004 who described the stages of enabling, engaging and then empowering when she characterised e-participation.
Infrastructure, hard and passive, distant from the end user underpins inclusion, access is a key issue and there are significant risks for communities who cannot get access to appropriate infrastructure. Equipment, hard and active but close to the end user has its role. Whether it’s equipment supporting people with health issues allowing them to stop at home or phones for homeless youngsters allowing them to stay in touch, it plays an important part in the inclusion agenda. Then there are the softer elements. Community mentors who support the individual through first steps are key players in the inclusion agenda as are more formal learning opportunities supporting skills and qualifications. Then there is independent use of ICT and its potential for empowerment, access to information, the ability to query information and a channel for the voice of individuals and communities. These are all important elements of digital inclusion but there is a natural direction of travel; shouldn’t everybody have the opportunity to access the empowerment potential of digital technology?
This is where I part company with the smart phone enthusiasts. Where does the smart phone fit on the scale of digital engagement? To my way of thinking, the app does the work so you don’t have to. For some, this is empowering because it brings the freedom to focus on other things. For others it’s like being given a stick and being told to work to its length instead of being given a ruler and being taught how to measure. The world wide web isn’t relevant in terms of delivering services; just give someone a smart phone and provide them with an app. On the scale of digital inclusion capability you are improving their life chances; but is this digital inclusion? Should we be happy to tick the box and move on or should we be concerned about empowerment of individuals and groups?
Why does it matter? The route to digital inclusion is becoming a matter of political choice: people are being included in what? A set of values, becoming one of us? Having access to the means of production? Gaining access to a channel of expression shared by like minded people? It’s no longer enough simply to say that people need to be digitally included so that they can access services or access skills; by becoming digitally included they are also being invited to take on a whole set of social values as well. There are implicit assumptions that people will want to shop in a certain way, book holidays, and communicate with people who do similar things in a similar way. Is that what digital inclusion looks like to those whose networks are survival networks? Is this one of the reasons why we fail to engage so many in the digital inclusion agenda because we are bringing with us a set of social values that are irrelevant? Are we including people in a way that is enhancing their survival networks and empowering them to deal with their own issues or will giving them them a phone and telling them to use the app just maintain a social and digital divide?