In Praise of Questions

I would like to put in a word for people who ask questions. How often do you hear someone described as a great question provider? Are you a solutions person? Everybody loves a solution and those who provide solutions can achieve minor celebrity status.  By way of example: Ofcom’s sixth International Communications Market report declared that the UK is a nation of online shoppers with eight in ten internet users saying that they had ordered goods or services online in 2012, higher than any other European country. At worst the headline received neutral press so it must be a good thing; but as far as I can see nobody questioned why we were a nation of on line shoppers. I would suggest that it’s because the thrust of public facing digital inclusion initiatives has been based on consumption but I have no hard evidence for that though I would like to ask the question.

The need to provide solutions leads to solution led initiatives which by their very nature are generally well received. Whoever was criticized for supporting older people to get on to the Internet? What’s wrong with providing access to recycled PCs for people who are less well off?  I applaud these initiatives but I want people to ask: why are we doing this? I want people to continually ask this question because when we don’t review the rational that underpins our solution it is possible to lose sight of how we got to where we are.

Our solution led digital inclusion initiative is underpinned by one or more assumptions; take for instance the assumptions about what is digital inclusion? As far as I know digital inclusion was officially defined by UK Government in 2008 as: “The best use of digital technology, either directly or indirectly, to improve the lives and life chances of all citizens and the places in which they live”. (Communities and Local Government, 2008). Digital inclusion can be seen as desirable because if offers a range of potential benefits for the demand side user; the benefits case for the supply side user will be related but different, for instance, cost savings, efficiencies, profitability, reach and so on. At one end of the demand side benefits case Annie Dare, at the time Special Adviser to the Digital Champion, Martha Lane Fox described the benefits of digital inclusion as:

“…..providing access to employability, to health, to education and information that the rest of us will take for granted”. (Race for 2012, 2010)

At the other end of the range of demand side benefits for those who are digitally included, viz making best use of digital technology, the benefits have also been described in UK Government policy as being:

“The number one benefit of information technology is that it empowers people to do what they want to do. It lets people be creative. It lets people be productive. It lets people learn things they didn’t think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential” Steve Balmer, Chief Executive, Microsoft. (Department of Business Innovation and Skills, 2009) .

As a provider of solutions for digital inclusion do you see yourself in either of these descriptions? I posted a blog in September “Consumers as Producers – Digital Inclusion and the New Digital Reality” about the changes in the digital landscape that will, over the coming years, affect all of us. I’m not going to rehearse them here but I do have questions that I would like you to ask yourself:

How far are the definitions and benefits still valid in 2012 and how appropriate will they be moving forward for example on a 10 year, 15 year or 20 year plus timescale?

What are the trend related scenarios (Social and Economic) which illustrate the range of activities expected of a digital person in the next 25 years which illustrate the benefits case? Do we need to generate new scenarios which support the way in which we can enable people to realize benefit from digital inclusion?

Given a range of possible scenarios is the experience of all users a positive or a negative one. Is technology liberating and empowering achieving the benefits as perceived by Steve Balmer for all users or for some users is the technology dividend limited or is it even controlling access to the benefits defined by Annie Dare?

What are the underpinning assumptions about digital inclusion? Should we challenge these assumptions in the light of new economic and social models? Is an inclusion model based on consumption of services and consumer goods adequate or should we assume the production of services or life style organisation as foundation elements of digital inclusion?

Every now and then you come across something which crystallizes an idea for you. I stumbled upon a talk given by Jaron Lanier at PDF 2012 in which he talks about the impact of digital in a democracy.

What he has to say resonated with my thoughts about the new digital reality it can be paraphrased as “the means to be middle class in the information age is shifting” but, as Lanier puts it, without middle class clout there can be no democracy. As we celebrate our nation of consumers and focus on enabling the final 18% to access services that are digital by default should we not pause, step back and question the assumptions that underpin our solutions in a disruptive digital environment. Are we setting out to empower and to create producers of content or are we simply providing access for the consumption of goods and services? Go ON, ask yourself!


One thought on “In Praise of Questions

  1. The first question which comes before any of these, is why aren’t we providing fit for purpose connectivity for all? Whilst a third of the citizens are stuck on sub meg speeds and dial up there is no way in this day and age we can get them engaged, they can’t stream, web pages won’t load, online banking and eGov times out, the kids can’t upload content… the list goes on and on, and giving poor people free computers is a total waste of time if the connection isn’t good enough. Mobiles won’t work indoors and vast areas of rural areas don’t even have 2G. Its time to wake up and see the truth. Get the pipes in and people will use them. What point is there in spending billions on a fast train for a few when good internet connectivity would save many more hours and many journeys.

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