Consumers as Producers – Digital Inclusion and the New Digital Reality.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
The Walrus and the Carpenter

With due respect to William Gibson it’s the uneven distribution of the future that has run as a theme through my blog posts since I started them in 2008. Whatever reservations I may express about our attempts to create a pervasive superfast infrastructure I can’t ignore the impact of the Digital Champion programme and the work of the many volunteers in addressing digital exclusion in England: but we still have the long tail; we still have the 20% or so who remain digitally and, very often, socially excluded in 21st century England and it is my contention that no amount of Going On is going to change that. The impact of that exclusion is being highlighted this week by the introduction of digital by default in 2013.  We should refocus our efforts to support the long tail and not just at point of service delivery but unless there is a shift in the inherent values which underpin the current approaches I suspect that the long tail is going to remain stubbornly there for a long time yet.

As the Walrus said to the carpenter “The time has come, to talk of many things”: I believe it’s time for the digital inclusion agenda to move on. I don’t mean to ignore the long tail but to recognise that to be digitally included is going to mean something very different. When we talk about inclusion today we mean the internet; when we talk about superfast broadband we mean faster internet and when we talk about the internet we mean the World Wide Web. This is not just semantics because our understanding is what underpins a traditional model of society and the economy overlaid by channels of consumption. There are vested interests in keeping the world that way; the old adage that Google knows what you want, Facebook knows what you like and Amazon knows what everybody like you also bought is as true today as ever it was and that knowledge underpins the position of those organisations as Internet power houses. Last week I watched the hour long launch of the Kindle Fire  here was an object of desire built entirely around our relationship with an on line retailer.

When the current economic crisis ends, and I have to believe that it will end whenever that may be, the factory gates will not swing open and we will not all march back into work to the sound of “Sing as we go” there are fundamental changes in play which will lead to tensions between the need of current state to sustain consumption and changes in the nature of mass employment which seeks to create efficiencies in the world of supply. A connected world brings opportunities for coordinating activity on a massive scale, powered by big data and facilitated by cloud technology: production moves to the edge, supply lines become supply points, goods and services become personalized. The new digital inclusion takes the accepted ideas of skills and literacy and the necessity of online privacy and safety and adds to it the capacity for agility and expectation of a portfolio lifestyle, collaborative ability and a committed social role. These capacities will become essential parts of a digital person, without them people will re-enter the realm of digital and social exclusion.

What will the world look like post 2020 are those are clouds on the horizon?

We will finally divorce infrastructure from the internet.  See written evidence presented by Dr Catherine Middleton to the House of Lords Select Committee on Superfast Broadband (page 245). Infrastructure will underpin intelligent homes, transport, energy, water and food supply; what IFTF calls sharable cities; what I call sharable communities.

The world will be personalized: Social care and health care will take account of personal wealth and be co-produced through a raft of agencies and local providers; they will no longer be chosen from a basket of pre-prepared offers. Medication will be personalized. Learning will be personalized, lifelong and continuous to support our adaptability and agility. Political engagement will be both personal and social; political parties will be collaborative and transitory the power will lie with the floating voter. What IFTF describes as the shift from “individually responsible intelligent organisms to complex ecosystems of biologically distributed intelligence”.

The economy will be truly digital, not a digital layer over a 19th century industrialized society but truly digital. Sheer economic pressure will force production to the edge removing costs from distribution logistics, inventory storage and over production. The rise of the Internet of Things will build intelligence into everyday objects, appliances and food and the aggregated data will fine tune supply. Big data will have value in a wider sphere than just social and market trends as providers realize that they have an interest in when and how we consume their products and services. Additive manufacturing will become the norm for the majority of consumer products and it will take place as close to the point of distribution as possible. Everything will exist in software until it is required and software will exist in the cloud; deindustrialization will be the norm.

We will experience massive disruption of traditional media; the Netflix effect will spread so that we will capture increasing value from SMART TV’s. The business model of telcos and cable companies will adapt or die: we will see the same patterns of protectionism and aggressive lobbying as we have with print media and music distribution industries but the outcome will be the same. The decline of traditional news and content providers will be matched by the rise and rise of respected curators of content as we seek trusted sources. Hyperlocal will play an increasingly important role in the information needs of communities; social media will be the second point of call for information signposting. Mobile will be pervasive and the accepted norm.

There will be little demand for mass employment and so we must prepare to have different expectations of our lifestyles. As institutional wage labour declines micro contributions increase, production becomes social. Beyond 2020 we are faced with a stark choice: Do we operate a false, inefficient economy in which we make goods in factories and consume over the internet to meet a demand stimulated by the marketing forces of the big providers as we do now? Do we operate in a way which makes us social care workers one day, manufacturers the next, educators one morning, learners one afternoon? Do we embrace a rise in the value of artisan goods and develop new skills to offer personalized services? Do we become content creators and skilled curators both to generate income and to enrich the lives of our communities?

Will all of this happen tomorrow? No of course not, this is a process of change but we must prepare for that change lest the long tail suddenly shortens and wide exclusion becomes the norm again. Consider the digital skills and attitudes that we need to develop to enable participation in the brave new world; consider yet the implications for staying as we are and not preparing for the impact of change? Do we pick up our tablet, log on to the store and order a video to watch on our SMART TV and call ourselves digitally included? Think about it.


2 thoughts on “Consumers as Producers – Digital Inclusion and the New Digital Reality.

  1. I enjoyed this post, and the allusion to William Gibson. Your first three paragraphs are meaningful, and relevant beyond the United Kingdom. I am in Arizona. Our long tail is likely more “obese” than yours; I wouldn’t be surprised if our digitally excluded are closer to 30% than your 20%. Digital literacy to a functional level, and the digital inclusion that it enables, is an important goal. It is a necessity to realize for 21st century society, in the UK, and Arizona.

    Part of your view of the future is problematic, insofar as I can comprehend it. The issues identified are valid, and worrisome to me. Yet I am unsure that they will be resolved in the way you envision. Centralized policy ensures standards of quality and consistency. Traditional news media strives to maintain a code of integrity, veracity and again, quality. Newspapers function well as trusted sources, content curators. Librarians are more than mere digital archivists. There already exist numerous avenues for lifelong, personalized learning, if one chooses to avail oneself of them.

    Many of the distributed, de-industrialized scenarios of the future that you describe are contingent on continuing supplies of natural resources and fuel for power, electricity. That can’t be swept under the rug. When resource constraints are no longer binding, unlike now, we will be freer to transition to your vision of the future, or so it seems to me.

    1. Hi Ellie,
      Thank you for responding to my post in such a considered way. As I say in the post I don’t believe that this will all happen tomorrow but I do believe that we are about to experience a process of disruptive change brought about by changes in modes of employment.

      My concern is that we (in the west?) take a view that is rooted in the here and now which means that we repeat what we are doing until such a time as we are forced to react. My intention in writing the post was to provoke people into thinking about change and how best to prepare for change.

      The two issues you highlight in particular are good examples; we cannot have continued growth in a world of finite resources and yet we appear, on the face of it, to operate as if additional resources will somehow emerge from nowhere. That is one reason that I believe that manufacturing will seek to minimise its production and distribution costs by moving production closer to the point of consumption; perhaps not exactly as I have said but in some way.

      I agree that lifelong learning opportunites are there to be had; I think that the point I was trying to make was that learning and re-learning will be non negotiable a we find different ways to sustain our employability in a world of micro contributions.

      In truth I suspect that governments will retain an inefficient economy for a forseeable future because the potential for social disruption is too great to contemplate.

      Once again many thanks for your comment. I checked out your blogs BTW: I enjoyed what I read.

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