Talk About Local unconference 3 October 2009
I got involved in social uses of technology in 1986 when I joined the Community Computing Network (which at the time was chaired by none other than Bill Thompson). In the late 80s and through the 90s there were numerous forums and meetings and discussions and documents about ‘this stuff’ – the convergence of computers and telecommunications – and what it might mean for unprivileged folk.
We talked about the potential for self-publishing but we weren’t sure of what. We thought this stuff could empower local people but we weren’t sure how. We thought it would promote horizontal communication and mean we were less vulnerable to vertical communication, but we weren’t sure what that would look like. Much of the time I was straggling along behind David Wilcox as we sought some kind of clarity that wasn't spoiled by political reality.
There were nay-sayers. I remember one well-known individual in the community development field protesting that the technology was divisive because ‘no-one is communicating when they’re at a computer’. The inability to see beyond next week was scary. Ludicrous proclamations about the death of the local, or the disastrous consequences for face-to-face interaction, seemed to stifle some people’s ability to reflect.
And things went askew on the way. In particular, too many smart people moved in and created the digital divide industry, determined to make money out of something politically fashionable. Their behaviour was and remains distasteful. The same sort of thing now seems to be happening under the heading of ‘digital engagement’. And there are efforts to introduce things like ‘digital champions’ and ‘digital heroes’, to invent new hierarchies while the rest of us are busy carting off the old ones.
Believe it or not, some of us felt that the global would not invalidate the local. We felt that there is a complementarity, not a disconnection, of offline and online; and wherever you live is a good place to start appreciating that. It turns out we were right. And this was confirmed today at a memorable meeting about hyperlocal sites, organised under the aegis of Talk About Local.
Lots of folk running or supporting local sites from around the country got together in reassuringly unfashionable Stoke on Trent, to discuss whatever they wanted to discuss, about what they are inventing and developing. They talked about relations with councils, how to deal with negative comments on their sites, how to encourage fellow-residents to become citizen-journalists, and so on.
Back in the 80s and 90s, we didn’t know what it would look like, but this is it. It may need some new language, but the values are all there - inclusion, empowerment, local people taking responsibility for their own communication environment. And those values are not worn self-consciously like badges, they’re simply ‘what we do’.
As my mate Martin Dudley of Bish.net put it, the risk with these events is that you get a stream of cyberbabble from the tech addicts, and a load of righteous blather which translates as ‘these poor people, we must help them connect’. He and I have both sat in plenty of meetings which oscillated between these themes. But today we were outside London, and it was a Saturday, which probably partly explains why we were spared.
I suppose that, as with inclusion and engagement, there’s a risk that the suits will swill into this field and contaminate it, but this time something – expertise – is already owned and held by local people. And yes, there’s a question about ‘who’s not here?’ (It was a uniformly white and predominantly middle class gathering). But these are early days.
Huge credit is due to William Perrin and his TAL colleagues for opening this topic up in just the right way at the right time.