Power to the People

[This is also on the BBC News website at
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/8618290.stm]

With the Digital Economy Act now law, a digital election taking place
around us, and more media coverage of Apple’s latest shiny electronic
toy than anyone could read in a lifetime the sense that the world
belongs to the wired can sometimes seem overwhelming.

One aspect of this digital triumphalism is a disturbing tendency on
the part of the technologically privileged, a group of which I am
clearly a member, to express incomprehension as to why anyone might
choose not to be online, not to have home broadband, not to set up a
Facebook profile or reveal their whereabouts through Rummble and not
to tweet incessantly about their desire for the latest laptop, tablet
or smartphone.

The reason may be that, as with any elite group, membership has its
privileges but exacts a price. For the Inner Party in George Orwell’s
Nineteen Eighty-Four it was the ability to acknowledge that the proles
mattered, while we seem to have lost the ability to “decentre” and see
the world from the viewpoint of another.

The term was coined by developmental psychologist Jean Piaget to
describe something that most of us manage to achieve in early
childhood but evidently lose as soon as we get a smartphone with an
unlimited data plan, at which point we start seeing those who choose
not to go online as ‘digital refuseniks’

I’m not talking here about those who cannot get online either because
they lack the resources or they live in areas of limited connectivity.
Many groups and organisations are working hard to get them connected,
and they do a great job in difficult circumstances.

People like Helen Milner, the dedicated and effective managing
director of the , recently-appointed UK Digital Champion Martha Lane
Fox, Gail Bradbrook at Citizens Online and Gill Adams at Digital
Unite, which specialises in helping people over 50 use IT and
organises Silver Surfer Day each year, are motivated, competent and
effective, and we should all do what we can to support them.

But there are others who could evidently afford a computer and an
internet connection yet choose not to take advantage of the
opportunity to sign up and surf the web, and we should not neglect
them.

If, as I do, you believe in the benefits to society and to the
individual that come from being able to use online services and tools
with confidence then making people aware of these benefits and
changing their mind about what the internet has to offer is as much a
part of the wider campaign for social justice as ensuring that
everyone who is entitled to state benefits receives them in full.

And unless we can persuade them that it is worth going online we will
all suffer, simply because real social change will only come about
when everyone has access and everyone can use online services and
tools.

Part of the problem is that “selling” the internet to people who don’t
perceive their lives as lacking requires them to imagine themselves
doing things which seem either trivial, boring or simply unnecessary,
but this is an issue that has faced many technologies throughout the
ages.

There is a wonderful parody of a monk having to be taught how to use a
“book” from the Norwegian TV show “Øystein og jeg” in 2001 that is now
all over YouTube. BoingBoing, the group blog that bills itself as a
“directory of wonderful things”, recently featured a pamphlet
published in 1916 by the Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company
that tried to explain why it was worth having an electric supply to
your house.

Home electricity was a hard thing to sell because people used to gas
lighting and the domestic equipment of the time simply could not
imagine what electricity might be used for. As a result the focus is
on the transformative power of the electric light, because it is easy
to describe and easy to illustrate.

Of course the power cable that allows you to have light also lets you
do many other things, and a hundred years later we can easily imagine
electric versions of most devices, from toothbrushes to air
conditioning, but those trying to sell electricity at the time faced a
significant challenge.

A lot of the effort being made to promote the internet today relies on
a similar strategy, focusing on the educational value of the net or
the ability to have video chats with your grandchildren. It’s
understandable, but clearly ineffective for a small but significant
proportion of the population.

Unlike 1916 when even the people selling electricity had no clear idea
of how it might be used in the future we can tell much about the shape
of the information society. And we need to start talking about it in
ways that emphasise the ability of the network-connected computers to
improve our lives, help us build a sustainable economy that will not
make the biosphere inhospitable and provide education, healthcare and
a sense of community for all.

I am not blindly optimistic about technology, and I do not think that
these benefits will come about simply because we all get online, but I
do firmly believe that the internet is one of the best tools on offer
to create a better world, and that we need to work harder to get this
point across to those who see Facebook being bullied into adding a
“panic” button to its website and believe that this is all the network
can give us.

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