Sunday, 14 December 2008

Against the digital divide industry: of champions and charters Yesterday I found meself in the second half of a consultation meeting in Birmingham about the government's 'digital inclusion plan.' I tiptoed into a breakout session that felt painfully like going back ten years in time. People with jobs and desks, some in suits and ties, were talking about social exclusion as if it was a broken-down truck that needed shifting out of the way. I was hearing suggestions that had been dealt with in so many exercises from the mid-nineties on, many of which I took part in, offering lessons that policy-makers persistently overlook even though they funded them. I touched gently on some of those issues recently. The first Blair government was to be applauded for the directness with which knotty issues of social exclusion were confronted, and by 2002 I thought there was clarity of understanding of the complexities of exclusion, especially around network poverty and low cultural capital. But by 2004 it became clear that a digital divide industry had become firmly established, stimulated to some degree by a few well-intentioned consultants, but most vigorously by those who had an interest in expanding their market by ensuring that the focus remained on the technology, not on exclusion. It's difficult to know how much damage those people have done, but it's not trivial. This morally and intellectually suspect appetite was misguidedly fed by government under various headings containing the word 'digital,' and long before I moved on from Citizens Online earlier this year I had been asking (much to the irritation of my fellow trustees I fear) why we had not made much impact on exclusion in spite of all the dosh sloshing around. So there I sat yesterday with the answer to that question very apparent. People talked about a 'digital inclusion charter' and the role of a 'high profile digital inclusion champion', flagged up in my view utterly pointlessly for this Government of Celebritisation by the minister for same. (Apparently in all seriousness, people were suggesting what are known as 'television personalities' for the role). Here's my view, FWIW. If there is to be a 'digital inclusion champion' it should be someone who experiences exclusion. The role should not be about 'digital': it's a social agenda (how obvious is that, how basic do we have to make these points?) Before there is such a thing as a charter, a diverse group of people who experience exclusion needs to be brought together, empowered, supported and skilled as necessary, but not prescribed. And perhaps one of the first things they might consider is whether or not a charter is an appropriate use of time and energy. Celebritising the exercise is only worthy of contempt. There's going to be a lot more poverty around in the next ten years and it's profoundly depressing to think that the government has just got as far as talking about an Action Plan and a Charter for Digital Inclusion. The previous generation got further, guys. What would a digitally inclusive society look...

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