Yesterday, absorbed in that well-known activity of looking for something else, I happened across a book chapter on 'income inequality and the information society'. It argues that poor people stand to be excluded from the information society by being priced out of commercial information services,
'and left with an impoverished and over-stretched system of public provision which is increasingly unable to meet their needs.'
The second bit resonates at least, and it's a curious little discovery just after a colleague and I had a meeting in a borough which has challenging levels of poverty and low levels of technology use.
The author was the much-respected Graham Murdock and the chapter appeared in Excluding the poor, published in 1986 by the Child Poverty Action Group (still listed on their publications page).
It's a good example of the thinking at the time around what was called 'information poverty' and concerns over the levels of exclusion that would result from these things called computers, telecomms and databases. I was involved in a lot of the debates at the time and we thought the threats were very real.
But they did not really emerge. It's hard to say how much of that is down to the refreshing initiatives taken by the incoming Labour government in 1997. Perhaps it was even down to the influence on those policies of people like Graham Murdock. Or were we all just wrong about information use and poverty? Britain did indeed become information-intensive, but we stopped hearing arguments about the widespread denial of access to information for people in poverty.
Then we started to see adverts on the London tube with the mysterious letters 'www'. Around 1999-2000 I served on a government task group tasked to consider 'access to IT'. Suddenly the issue was about people on low incomes getting their hands on the technology which provided access to the information they weren't otherwise being denied. Then came an insistence in some quarters that people on low incomes weren't participating in this tech-binge because the diet wasn't to their taste, ie there wasn't enough content of the right kind.
This was accompanied and then succeeded by efforts to promote a more empowering, less philanthropical approach, which would necessarily mean stimulating self-publishing. Oh and then something called web 2.0 came along, and behold, before long people did publish stuff themselves. (See, in this respect, my thoughts about where local websites fit into this history).
So where are people on low-incomes in all this now? Sorted? If it wasn't about access to information sources; and it's clearly not about appropriate content if it ever was; and for all the rhetoric about 'digital divide' it's no longer significantly about access to the kit or connections; is there still a sense in which people who experience exclusion are constrained in their use of information and communication technology to address their own circumstances? Yes there is, as I and my colleague heard clearly while we sat in a town hall the other day learning about the difficulties of bringing social media to certain culturally self-excluding groups.
We were told about an area comprising mainly white working class families after the collapse of a dominant industry, where the dependency culture is deeply embedded, racist tension is high and levels of motivation to overcome disadvantage are very low.
The neutering effects of this culture are profoundly damaging. I think the central point is this: workers feel that people self-exclude from contexts of dialogue and engagement, so there is little advancement of thinking and no empowerment. This means that the openness of social media may be a non-starter.
From his study of contributions to neighbourhood email lists, Keith Hampton concludes firmly that a significant proportion of people in disadvantaged localities in north America are online and participating in discussions; and also that those contributions afford the formation of collective efficacy in ways that other media do not. This evidence is hugely valuable, but it still leaves us in the UK with a lot of people in low-income areas, who have a connection and spend time online, but are unwilling to participate in digital conversations with others or to engage with agencies online.
Perhaps in time, once again it will come to be seen that we've been barking up the wrong tree, but how do we identify the right one? I'm not aware of any studies at local level, since those I was involved in a few years ago, that are involving people on low incomes themselves in exploring the answers to these questions. I'd be keen to hear of any, cos that's what we need.