Reflections on what might have been
You know how it is, nothing for ages and then two come along at once, just like the bus. This week saw the arrival of two excellent items in my inbox: the first, a slide deck from Fred Garnett’s event Curated Conversation on Digital Inclusion 2012; this was a refreshing change because the contributors challenged a lot of current thinking on Digital Inclusion. We have got into the habit of accepting the established approach to Digital Inclusion because it’s a “good thing” and it has proven benefits. What this piece does is question both the approaches and the assumptions that underpin the rationale for digital inclusion. It reminded me that there are lots of exclusions and one size does not fit all. The second, an opportunity to feed into the review of a report for Consumer Focus by Ctrl-Shift on the Digital Detriment; once again a challenge to established thinking that digitally driven consumer experience is beneficial to all.
Digital exclusion comes in many flavours: you can have exclusion through lack of access or exclusion through lack of skills. These ideas are accompanied by the notion that connecting people to the Internet and showing them how to use a computer will improve their daily life and improve their life chances through better employment opportunities and increased earnings potential. For some people this is true and it is this rationale, that digital inclusion improves social mobility, which is used as a justification for the funding of programmes. It actually goes further than this and the very existence of programmes to tackle digital inclusion issues in this way leads government to believe that digital inclusion is being addressed.
There are some types of digital exclusion that are no less serious for being obvious; exclusion through age, exclusion through disability and these have been a particular focus for the European Union. Projects which improve the accessibility of the digital realm for people who are less able because of additional challenges have contributed significant levels of innovation to the digital inclusion agenda.
What of digital exclusion through lack of shared values? What of those who do not access digital technology because of its association with a value set that is either meaningless or alien to them? It is conceivable that digital values have become associated with cheaper holidays, cheaper insurance, convenient shopping and discounted goods all of which are things that have less meaning to a whole section of society; People whose day is dominated by survival and whose environment reflects a different set of memes to those of mainstream middle class society. Yet, aren’t these the people who are potentially the biggest beneficiaries of a digital society?
It is this multiplicity of the definition of digital exclusion that is reflected in the comments of Simon Jones, the Local Government Business Development Manager from CISCO, who said:
“Branded approaches to inclusion risk reinforcing exclusion perceptions and states of mind”
If I have a criticism of the Digital Detriment report it’s this: the section on the digital divide is confined to “A look behind the digital divide” and the work of JISC on digital skills – my view is that it needs to go deeper and further.
The risk analysis in Digital Detriment is excellent and looks not only at impact and scale but also at proximity. The report highlights issues around the data we share, knowingly or otherwise and the uses to which that data is put. I have never read the 64 pages of the iTunes terms and conditions of use but I tick the box so I can use the software – I suspect that it’s not just me. I do take care about which cookies I allow onto my machine, I monitor for tracking cookies. I also monitor for use of my company name on the Internet. I pay a company to monitor financial transactions which mention my bank accounts – but what if you can’t or don’t know how to do these things?
The scene from Minority Report where Tom Cruise walks through the adverts but with somebody else’s retina scan has become iconic. Advertisers argue that they are only giving us those things in which we are interested hence Facebook knows what you like but Google knows what you want whereas Amazon knows what everybody like you had. We have to take stock of what we are bringing into the living room when smart TV’s arrive complete with apps and channels controlled by app providers not independent broadcasters. Take this a step further and consider the Minority Report for the range of digitally excluded groups, not just those with skills and access issues; when the internet speaks to them personally when they struggle with personalized health care for instance how will their decision making be influenced?
So, if you haven’t read it yet I can strongly recommend the Digital Detriment report but when you read it do so against the backdrop of the widening debate about digital exclusion.