Digital Nations and Virtual Revolutions

A blog link arrived via an rss feed, email, colleague (not quite sure of the correct order but thanks Julian) Are you digital natives paying attention draws attention to Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier; a production (in nine episodes) shown in the US as the BBC’s Virtual Revolution is being shown here.  Programme website

I was interested in author Derek Morrison’s suggestion that “Both public service broadcasters (in US and UK) should normalise providing transcripts for resources like these” because “there is a lot of valuable commentary and potential citation in each production.” I’d like to add an additional reason. Those digitally excluded from the Virtual Revolution, through lack of inclusive design and affordable assistive technology, are those with the most to gain from alternative modes of access. I’ve watched two episodes of the BBC programme and have yet to see any mention of the ‘revolutionary’ ability of digital data to be customized to suit individual preference or need. No mention of it in the blog outline of the nine Digital Native episodes either. Talk about invisibility!

BBC’s Virtual Revolution

The first of four programmes in the BBC’s The Virtual Revolution was called the Great Leveller.  It sounded promising but it wasn’t. The script was full of cliches such as empowering everyone and giving equal access to information while neatly sidestepping all the issues around barriers and inaccessible websites. It did get one thing right, when they said  ‘the potential of the technology was to offer a paradigm shift on a par with the invention of the printing press’. It was a shame it didn’t go on to acknowledge those who have always been excluded from analogue text who will continue to be excluded from digital unless access technology gets cheaper and content produced inclusively.

The programme ended by suggesting that the original bottom-up democratic vision of the Internet was being undermined. Focusing on the domination of organisations such Google and Amazon, it claimed the web’s inherent inequality is a reflection the hierarchical nature and inequalities in the world. Well, at least that was one point you can’t argue with!

Repetitive but needs to be said…

In 1994, the UK government made the decision to use technology to deliver ‘improved’ public services via the Internet. In 1995 and 2005 Disability Discrimination Acts were passed. In 2009 the Digital Britain report made explicit the needs of those who are digitally absent. The report highlights links between digital and social exclusion. These links are pertinent but there is a danger of creating a mutually exclusive binary where the real issue escapes attention. The Governments newly published ICT Strategy is evidence that this is happening.  

Section 2  UK Public Sector ICT in the 21st Century states how “Technology can be used to provide access to citizens who might otherwise be excluded from services delivered using traditional methods.”  So far, so good.  What better use of technology than to enable those unable to see text to listen to it instead? But the document doesn’t even go there. Instead the two examples it gives are ‘using websites to inform teenagers/children about the dangers of drugs (FRANK –, or providing online learning for young people excluded from mainstream education through”  What about the needs of those already excluded from analogue text who continue to be excluded from digital equivalents. In 5.2 Strategic principles there is one mention of the word ‘accessibility’. The concept, so crucial to the Internet, doesn’t even qualify for a tag.  From Gutenberg to Google, access continues to be denied.

Twice in one day

Examples of the invisibility of digital exclusion issues is, paradoxically, all around us.  Today I’ve read the Independent Review of ICT User Skills by Baroness Estelle Morris (June 2009) which under the chapter ‘Who are the Digitally Excluded?’ says: An analysis of this data suggests the digitally excluded tend to be:

  • older 
  • socially excluded – often through unemployment, living in social  housing, having low incomes or being single parents. 7.2m (15% of the UK adult population) are both digitally excluded and socially excluded. 
  •  with few or no qualifications

No recognition of digital exclusion through impairment and the inadequate availability of the appropriate assistive technology.

Also today I’ve seen the BBC’s online article on training blind people to take photographs. Apart from my linguistic objection to labelling people through a sensory impairment, as though that was their sole defining feature, the BBC tells the story using video. Listening to it doesn’t give adequate descriptive information about the content of the images, or what is happening on the screen, and the captions (for people with hearing impairment) only tell you the name of the photographer. Needless to say, if you are using the low graphics version of the website there is no alternative text.

The exhibition Sights Unseen runs from 19 – 23 January at The Association of Photographers Gallery, 81 Leonard Street, London EC2A 4QS.