Penval’s Last Post

If you’re like me you probably have two, three or even more books on the go at any one time. It’s a character failing I guess; the inability to sustain concentration on a single thing for more than a short while. That said, I’m quite happy to flit from one to the other spending an hour or so on one then putting it to one side and spending half an hour on another. I have four on the go at the moment:

“Umbrella” by Will Self is like a babushka doll, it peels back history starting from a woman’s incarceration in a Victorian mental institution in the mid twentieth century. Having personal experience of caring for someone who spent time in such an institution during the early seventies this book triggers vivid memories and I have to put it down for a while and then go back to it; it is both disturbing and addictive.

I move from that to “Value & Worth: Creating New Markets in the Digital Economy” by Irene Ng. This is one of those books that provides multiple “light bulb” moments as it analyses the way in which the digital economy works; value is redefined and we begin to re-think what we mean by co-creation and co-production. It has led me to re-visit and re-evaluate the work of thinkers like Clay Shirky right back to E V Hippel and L Leydesdorff.

In similar vein I’m also reading “Who Owns the Future” by Jarond Lanier. I’m a big fan of Lanier even though I find his style irritating and “You Are Not a Gadget” should be essential reading for anybody in the digital inclusion arena. In his latest book he looks at how the Internet is becoming a driver of inequality by shifting power to a minority with the willing participation of the masses. This is the dark side of big data; it raises significant questions about the political forces that drive the Internet and highlights the shifting influence of the middle classes.

All of the above are e-books, the last one “Traces Remain” by Charles Nicholl is a hard back given to me by my son for Christmas. It’s a series of essays which examine the insights we can gain into some of the lesser known people in history (principally late Tudor and early Stuart) who had an influence on better known characters such as Shakespeare but whose record is contained in fragments. It’s a great book at bedtime and it provides a satisfying break from the digital world and yet it still has relevance because we all leave traces in our on line world it’s just that our information legacy doesn’t lie there to be discovered instead it’s farmed, in real time for the benefit of the owners of Lanier’s Siren Servers.

Why am I writing this down? I’m sure that those of you reading this will have a list of books equally as interesting, if not more so. Back in November 2012 I wrote a blog post which I called “Literacy, Coproduction and Sharing: It’s what digital inclusion should be”. In it I noted that I had written 57 Blog posts since 2008 – roughly one a month – and this in turn was my personal commentary on Digital Britain. I realised that I had changed; my views on the digital divide were not what they had been in 2008 when I had eschewed the value of skills and the need of the masses to get engaged for the sake of some sort of brave new world. Re-reading those 57 posts I detected a growing cynicism on my part because when I looked around the world appeared to be where it had been in 2008. We appeared to be using the same deficit models as our starting point and we were measuring outcomes in terms of people’s ability to consume rather than people’s ability to influence and organize.

When this deficit model of inclusion looked at against the views of Lanier and Ng has to be seen as, at best, well meaning but wrong. That doesn’t mean that skills and social and shopping don’t have a place; it means that we are failing to question why we are doing this in the first place. Peter Thiel from the Founders Fund said “We wanted flying cars and we got 140 characters”. We constantly hear that we don’t have enough innovators, we don’t have enough entrepreneurs and yet we encourage a society of passive consumption. Personally I don’t think it’s something to shout about when we in the UK are the biggest on line shoppers in the world. We should be worried, we should be looking to change that; instead we strive to get the final 17% of “digitally excluded” people into the same digital cul-de-sac as the rest of us.

So I, for one, decided to move on and I’m leaving Penval behind. In the future I will focus on those technologies that I think will make a difference: 3D printing, the cloud, everything in software, shifting production to the edge, the Internet of Things. I will also focus on the digital detriment: those things that I feel work against the common good and not for it, I want to highlight those technologies that empower people, which give a voice that has to be heard, that supports people and recognises their contribution. People are not a free data feed for the “fire hose”.

Hopefully my output will continue at one per month minimum and in another four year’s time I can look back with less cynicism and see a digitally included world  of producers, participants and activists.


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