Reflections on what might have been
Thank goodness that someone with the ear of Government is finally taking the issue of digital inclusion by the scruff of the neck and giving it a good shake. “The goal of Digital Britain should be leadership in e-commerce, as well as online adoption and public services” so let’s get digital inclusion out of the minor policy league and back into the mainstream.
I do take issue on a couple of points, not least the moral case; I’m sure that some of Professor Barwise’s colleagues in the Philosophy School would do so as well. While it would be difficult to argue that there was not an absolute case for reducing inequality; not least, assuming that participation in a vibrant economy is a desirable moral outcome, because an economy based on inequality is an inefficient economy, we should not ignore the fact that there may be no relative moral case. In short, people who are digitally and socially excluded may not wish to share our view of a digitally included society as a moral good.
I have neither the skill nor the knowledge to argue the philosophical merits of the moral case but I would say that we (the digeratti?) would do well to keep on asking the question of ourselves and what we do in promoting digital inclusion. It is quite right to promote the work done by Race Online and the UK Online Centres but the question still has to be asked why we still have 18% of the population off line after nearly eight years of government sponsored activity. The Digital Challenge started in 2004, the first national Digital Inclusion conference was in 2008. The Labour Government had a well thought out, cross departmental policy initiative on digital inclusion to run alongside the D Gov and the E Gov initiatives and yet, 8 years on, here we are with the long tail of 18%.
The other issue is that I don’t believe that it’s simply a matter of resourcing; while the amount for the activities of UK Online Centres may well be inadequate the Research Councils UK have already committed £58m in the period 2008 – 2011 and between 2011 and 2014/15 have a projected spend of £129m on the digital economy alone.
We are undertaking these activities in a changing context; I don’t know if Einstein really did say that insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, whoever said it had a point. We need to keep asking ourselves questions about what we do both to understand why we do it in the current context and to consider doing things differently, to take account of new contexts, in order to obtain different results. In her 2011 Media Policy Brief “The Emergence of a Digital Underclass” Ellen Helsper argued that: “To achieve a digitally equal Britain as well as a digital Britain ….. policies need to address the whole spectrum of digital inclusion: qualtity of access, skills, motivation and effective, sustainable use.” I agree and would argue that simply increasing resources to do again what we have done for the past 8 years will not necessarily give us a different result but in order to understand that we have to repeatedly question what we are doing and why.
Work by Anthony Townsend and Rachel Maguire for Institute for the Future raised the prospect of empowering the poor through ICTs following work undertaken in the poorest areas of Brazil “A Planet of Civic Laboratories”, Rockerfeller Foundation 2010. Rangaswamy and Cutrell provided an interesting insight into self organizing networks around mobile technology amongst young males in the slums of urban India: “Slums, Youth and the Mobile Internet in Urban India” Microsoft Research India 2012. Perhaps these examples of the use of ICTs in the extreme end of social exclusion can offer us insights into the way forward. At the very least, let us ask the question.