Is ‘Digital inclusion’ actually exclusive?
Spoke at a ‘Digital Inclusion’ conference today but wondered about its purpose. We never had an ‘Analogue Inclusion’ movement and those face-to-face types exclude people all the time. The BBC speaker was truly dire and managed to deliver nothing but a set of general sales statements about the BBC. I suppose making the license fee compulsory is one approach to inclusion. When asked by the Chair whether she thought there was a tension between the BBC’s local news services and other local news providers she spouted some crap about partnerships, side stepping the question completely. At lunch there was much talk of the BBCs inflated and destructive role in all this. They may be inadvertently stifling innovation.
Lord Carter was pretty focussed after this waffle. The first commercial, domestic broadband connection went in 1999. In less than 10 years we’ve seen amazing progress and this has been achieved by not interfering with the market. If you set rules you tend to chill the market. Good start. However, now that he’s been Lorded by government and asked to write reports for Gordon, he’s changed his mind. Now is the time for intervention and Government spending on inclusion – just as money is getting tighter than a submarine hatch.
But it was in the afternoon workshop that I got confused. The audience were curiously non-digital and analogue in both their questions and comments. It was all about preserving face-to-face contact, traditional teaching and walk-in centres. Well meaning (but digitally deluded) do-gooders, get very worked up about digital exclusion and the digital divide. The glass is always half empty and government funds must be directed to those who have no access (mostly no interest) in using technology and the web. They will not be satisfied until they wire up every pensioner, homeless person and NEET. Forget keeping warm, a good meal and avoiding prison – use Twitter!
You don’t hear of people talking about the ‘analogue abyss’, which is far wider and deeper than the ‘digital divide’. Fewer people buy analogue books than use the internet. Analogue school education in classrooms has huge levels of failure as does most other forms of analogue delivery. Students in our universities still have to suffer the boredom of analogue lectures, which are almost never captured and distributed. Training in both public and private organisations is still all flipcharts, cheap hotels and bowls of Foxes Glacier Mints. The analogue world, by definition, relies on human delivery and is therefore massively inefficient as it is not scalable.
People also have huge problems with analogue literacy, unable to write, fill in forms, communicate with others face to face, open a bank account and so on. Is there enough focus on these issues before we point the finger of failure at the digital world? The fact is that digital take up has been faster than any other form of technical advance in the history of our species. The computer, consoles, mobiles and web have stratospheric growth and ubiquity figures way beyond any previous technology and media. Mobile devices, especially among so called ‘difficult to reach’ groups are so ubiquitous that many have more than one and certainly have skills way beyond their social work minders - middle-class, well-paid professionals who are trying to reach them. Try texting!
There was much talk, though few participants, on the forums around frameworks, standards and policies, most of which focus on prohibitions. It was all ‘Yes...but..’ and not ‘Yes...and..’ people. It’s not the consumers that are the problem but often the gatekeepers. Analogue professions and analogue media types are often the first to hold back digital progress on the basis of digital exclusion. You don’t hear educators complain about using books in learning despite the fact that books are rarer in low income homes than computers, and are inappropriate for people with visual impairment and learning difficulties. Yet it’s the first question to come up whenever technology is mooted in a school to solve a problem. The digital divide is used by schools keep out digital services. Those whose very profession is the analogue delivery are generally negative about the role of technology in learning. Digital inclusion has long been used in government to stop reasonable efforts being made in the delivery of services to citizens.
Look to the market for innovation and demand that policies mandate the use of productive technology in learning. Why? The greatest obstacle is not the Digital Divide but Digital Denial. It’s those who are too old, too technophobic and too stuck in their ways to do what is necessary to make this whole thing work. They need to get out of the way.
Don’t let the digital exclusion tail wag the digital dog. Ultimately, the markets will drive progress through ever cheaper and easier to use technology and services. Public intervention often merely slows things up with the illusion that things are being done. What really matters is compelling reasons to buy and price point. Make things compulsive and cheap, then people will buy. This happened with television, telephones, mobiles, games consoles and iPODS. Let the market innovate and produce the goods that people want. That will push us towards inclusion.