Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Up the wrong tree? Social exclusion in the network society 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...
Decline in informal volunteering: time for a network solution? The latest topic reports from the 2007-2008 citizenship survey have been published, one on race, religion and equalities, and this one on volunteering which shows a 2% overall drop in regular informal volunteering and a 5% decrease among young people. Informal volunteering covers things like giving advice, transporting or escorting someone, keeping in touch with someone, doing shopping, collecting pension, writing letters, filling in forms and so on. Back in October we had the headlines for the first quarter of 2009 which revealed an overall 5% decline among adults volunteering informally 'at least once in the 12 months prior to interview.' I note that the latest release is from pre-recession data. As I wrote in October, I fear this 5% statistic is a tiny marker of a major social problem. I wonder how policy is going to respond? Comparable decline in formal volunteering might bring specific investment through the volunteering agencies: but who assumes responsibility for promoting informal volunteering? Whose desk does this problem land on? The general erosion of informal interaction at neighbourhood level has worrying implications, because it’s the invisible foundation of many other social benefits we ought to be able to take for granted. We co-produce safety in our own neighbourhoods just as we co-produce our own health and the socialisation of our children. It would be nice to think we also co-provide the dignified ageing of our elders. We can't do that if fewer and fewer people are informally helping each other out. In some ways perhaps it's as well if there isn't a policy in-tray for this issue, because policy makers tend to reach for their favourite organisations and in my view it's not an issue for organisations but for network-based initiatives. Someone said to me the other day that there is a local authority that seems to think Fix My Street is theirs in some sense: it's so successful that they don't realise it's not their organisation's product - a result of hierarchical organisational decision-making, which is the only form of behaviour they understand. How do we come up with a Fix My Street type solution to the decline in informal support? One answer might be Talk About Local, which is promoting local social blogging. Since it's not an explicit purpose of the project, it might not be fair to measure the impact on informal volunteering over time in areas where Talk About Local has generated activity, but it would be interesting.

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