In the 2015 Dimbleby Lecture, Martha Lane Fox called for de-commercialisation of the interne (transcript) and setting up an independent body, informed by the ‘….original promises of the internet – openness, transparency, freedom and universality…’ This may be too little too late; I think the damage is already done. Amazon brings the high street to our mobile devices and we love the convenience. Twitter not only keeps us in the loop, we become the loop-makers. Whether artists, scientists or humanitists – the internet offers resources on a previously unimaginable scale. Like having a Britannica set behind every keystroke. That’s 32 volumes. RIP Britannica – 1768-2010. The day knowledge stopped for the digitally excluded.
MLF extolls the advantages of being online and says ‘Crucially, we must ensure that no one is left behind; that the 10 million adults who can’t enjoy the benefits of being online because they lack basic digital skills, no longer miss out.’ Sounds promising but… digital divides are not new. They need less talking and more genuine opportunities for challenging and bridging instead. MLF said nothing about exclusion through lack of access. Instead digital exclusion now equates to poor digital literacies iinstead.
The discourse has changed and this has been happening for some time. The focus of the Go On UK website has shifted from promoting affordable and usable technology to the quality of access without even a mention of poor broadband. The digital debate has become personal rather than political and is now about individuals. Go On replaced Race Online, also setup by MLF, with the aim of getting the nation connected for the end of 2012. At least it contained acknowledgment of digital divides. The Go On vision only addresses the lack of basic digital skills, calling this a ‘significant social issue’ – which it is – but even more crucial is the lack of internet access in the first place!
After watching and reading the lecture by MLF I signed the Dot Everyone petition calling for a public institution for the digital age. I’ll sign anything which offers opportunities to raise awareness of digital divides and exclusions. On clicking sign I was immediately asked for money in order to share my signature with others.
<#Sighs> So much for MLF’s lecture call for de-commericalisation of the internet!
At last the government acknowledges digital exclusion is about more than access to technology – it is also about the quality of that access. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-20236708 Digital literacies are moving centre stage. This is reassuring. For too long the focus has been embedding technology into systems or attention to early adopters pushing the boundaries. It’s time the user experience received some attention.
This past year the JISC Developing Literacies Programme has funded projects designed to embed core digital skills into the curriculum. JISCs definition of digital literacy is those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society. Within HE they give examples of using digital tools to undertake academic research, writing and critical thinking; PDP and showcasing achievements. But it’s not easy to package digital literacies into any single box and this makes strategic approaches to supporting their development a tricky task.
A report commissioned by Go On has concluded 16 million people in the UK lack basic online skills; defined as using a search engine, sending and receiving emails, completing online applications and accessing information online. Organisations are pledging to train their employees in these four areas. This barely scratches the surface when the full implications of digital engagement are set out. Broader digital literacies have become essential life skills for example personal and financial safety online, the permanence of digital footprints and hard criticality with regard to online content. In an unmoderated environment, the evaluation of authenticity and authority lies with the individual user. Distinguishing between knowledge information and personal opinion is an increasingly essential art – and not always an easy one.
Being let loose on the internet can be exciting and inspiring. It can also quickly become a nightmare. Digital literacies have moved on from the skills required to access virtual environments, although there is a danger these are assumed more than are in evidence. However, I’m not sure they have moved far enough. There are broader issues around living in a digital society which are surfaced less often. Any attention to digital literacies is good but the attention has to be focused in the right places for it to be truly effective
‘Digital Britain’ has survived the election and the drive to get us all online by 2012 has stepped up a gear. The strap line to the Race Online 2012 website now reads ‘We’re all better off when everyone’s online’ and David Cameron’s letter Martha Lane Fox to remains Digital champion includes the following: “…the Government is committed to increasing transparency and accountability through making information systematically available online…we need to encourage more people to go online and hence be able to access public information and services.”
So far so good – so long as we have digital equity. The Labour government made an explicit link between social and digital exclusion and while it didn’t go far enough, it was a promising start. Race Online 2012 has a new manifesto. and it increasingly clear there is a new agenda. Online, the manifesto is a visual horror. The 67 page 5.56 MB PDF offers no respite. This is a prime example of style over substance. The Manifesto for achieving for 100% digital inclusion demonstrates how to be digitally exclusive right from the start.
Putting the dreadful design to one side, what is Race Online about? The message is clear. The government is replacing people run services with online services. If you can’t access them then tough. The reasons for not going online are lack of motivation, access and skills. The government is going to sort out the access, then its up to you to get motivated and virtually re-educated. Its for your own good. The benefits of being online are obviously about economics, education, employability and improved efficiency of public welfare so how can you not see the benefits?
The Manifesto is glossy, in your face and totally inadequate. It recognises 48% of disabled people are not online but on its own that figure means nothing. Words like assistive technology, accessible design and inclusive practice are absent (in both text and the sub-text of the design). There’s no recognition of the issues of the cost of assistive software or even how with all the prerequisites in place, if digital data is not designed with the needs of assistive technology in mind then access will continue to be denied. Focus is on the transformative power of the Internet to create a new networked nation with no indication of how vulnerable citizens, already disempowered by inadequate access to welfare and barriers to social participation, are going to be supported.
The move towards virtual citizenship is alarming. Divisions between those with digital competence and those without are already creating new structures of power and dependency. The computer both connects us and isolates us. It supports a digital economy where nothing is real but we all pretend that it is. In the future, anarchy won’t be virtual it will be human. Science fiction won’t be about machines, but about people. The Internet can offer unparalleled access to information and opportunities to participate in the active construction of knowledge, but it can’t substitute for care and welfare. The greatest problem is that those driving the agenda don’t care about the impossibility of digital equity while those best placed to highlight the issues are being denied a virtual voice.
Martha Lane Fox is hoping the Olympic Games in 2012 will do for broadband what the queen’s coronation did for television sales in 1953. The new Digital Champion says not having access to internet exaggerates and exacerbates the problems of the most socially and economically disadvantaged people in the UK. It’s not clear how this success will be measured. The number of new signers-on at a community centre? Increased applications for broadband? Are there plans for new computers to include a broadband connection in the way television sets are licensed? Neither is it clear how competency will be achieved. Training through family and community responsibility is another vague governmental idealism. “Get kids training grannies, get all of us kind of plugging into our local communities to try and pull the whole country along. If we all took it on ourselves to train 10, 20 people, the job is done,”
Digital Britain is fundamentally flawed. The rhetoric fails to recognise that the technology is only ever the tool. Acquisition is not the same as use nor does ownership equate with competence. This is utopian thinking; create the desired environment and the population will respond accordingly. Issues of diversity, literacy, cognitive and physical abilities, are all typically absent. The RNIB suggest that 1 in 12 of those aged 60 have a sight loss, rising to 1 in 6 by the age of 70; everyday 100 people in the UK begin to lose their sight. The number of people with a degree of visual impairment is expected to more than double in the next 25 years, an increase linked to an ageing population and poor health. Dyslexia Action suggests 10% of the population have difficulty with reading and writing. Low levels of literacy and numeracy are linked to truancy, disengagement with education is linked to a cycle of unemployment, low income and poor housing – all factors contributing towards the social and economic disadvantage identified by Martha Lane Fox.
But – rather being negative – it could be that the government is finally serious about targeting those for whom digital data poses the greatest barriers? That Digital Britain is the long awaited acknowledgement of the need for affordable assistive technology, recognition that ALL Internet content should be available in multiple, alternative formats and that ALL computers should have decent magnification and screen reading software installed as standard. If Britain is to become digital then priority has to be given to diversity on a national scale. You can bring the technology to the people but you can’t make them engage. Not without addressing the very same factors that have created the target audience of the report in the first place.