Stranger in a strange(ly digital) land

Understanding Digital Policy was the title of an unconference I was at this week. (It was at an outpost of the University of Liverpool in central London – hence the title and illustration for this post.)

Although it was billed as covering

  • How is policy shaping the uptake and use of Digital Media and Technologies?
  • How are Digital Media and Technologies shaping policy making and policy implementation?

it went much further than that, into how will and how should policy be shaped, and what research should be done. This was at least in part due to the organiser, Simeon Yates, leading the the ESRC Ways of Being in a Digital Age team, and so being highly influential on research directions.

You can jump straight to my personal reactions if you want, but here’s how the day progressed. Firstly, we found interesting and/or kindred spirits by writing our own ‘about-me’s, looking at each others’ and deciding who we wanted to work with. Here’s my ‘about-me’:

You knew all this already.

You knew all this already.

From this, three groups emerged – I was in a group discussing community/local. Here’s the research questions we came up with:

  1. How can we better, more usefully segment the ‘digitally excluded’?(personally, multi-dimensionally, socially, situationally, …?)
  2. How can we achieve iterative digital learning?
  3. Can we reverse the questions about digital inclusion away from a web-centric perspective? (How do we understand ‘digital need’?)

I have to admit I don’t fully understand the third question. Its main proponent talked about several issues that annoyed him, the main one being a loathing of New Public Management. (I tend to agree – government doesn’t have customers, it’s there to provide services for people.) However the first two questions make a lot of sense to me – the first is about beginning to treat people as individual humans, each with his or her own balance of digital abilities and needs. Another way of looking at it is there are quite a few digital divides, and people can be behind one or several of them, and trapped to different degrees by different divides.

The second question harks to my current research, which is about how community councillors learn to be (digitally) information literate. There is always room to learn more, from what information might be needed to solve a problem, to how to obtain this information, to how to understand and combine information, to publishing the results effectively and wisely. (It’s no coincidence that this list is a quick hop through the SCONUL 7 pillars of digital literacy.) Cross-cutting all of our questions was a big but undefined question of ethics – perhaps it’s best asked as ‘what should we be doing?’

The other groups identified further research questions:

  • How do we distinguish between good digital and bad digital?
  • How can we ‘digitals’ influence what happens?
  • Addressing digital awareness gaps to avoid digital exclusion and digital superficiality.
  • How can local authorities innovate in an age of austerity?
  • How can digital policy enable and empower local communities in a sustainable manner? (How do we build a culture of sustainable accessibility?)

Clearly there are overlaps in those themes and questions. Here’s how we tried to resolve them:

resolution-1 resolution-2
Everyone used stickies to comment on ‘popularity’… … but I also tried to amalgamate questions diagrammatically.

The stickies and links were used to develop four sets of research questions or themes:

Digital inclusion

  • Should everyone be online?
  • Physical support and networks – assumptions and benefits
  • How do online communities compliment other communities rather than displace them?
  • Role of government in terms of shaping digital environment (with or against industry)
  • Framework for linking digital policy
  • How can policy support the life-course?

Community/local

  • What are the parameters to assess the digital capacity of LAs?
  • What are the (un)intended consequences of LA digital doings?
  • Digital – who benefits?
  • Perceptions of digital value across age-groups or other segments of society
  • Who is the/are the community-authority? (Think ‘governance’ and ‘accountabilty’)

Good digital and bad digital

  • Technology is the result of choices
  • Function over elegance
  • Digital changes faster than law, politics and society.
  • What can the government do about non-government bad digital?

Digital economy

  • To what extent does digital disrupt or reinforce the political economy/culture?
  • Does lowering the cost of participation lower its value?
  • The role and art of online deliberation
  • What are the effects of filter bubbles on dialogue?
  • Information literacy, media literacy and digital literacy
  • To what extent should digital and information literacy feature in digital inclusion?
  • How to conduct politics on the internet when hostile state agencies can penetrate and manipulate without you realising?

So some of those may well become funded research areas. I’m looking forward to Simeon’s report, and will share it here when I can.

Personal reactions

Firstly the day’s format made us think and network. These are both good things™! Secondly, it’s important to me that everyone has choices – there is simply no point in expecting everyone to be full-on digital natives, yet one delegate said that this is a UK government aim for 2030. There will always be people with physical, mental and or social disabilities, and I don’t think we can just ignore this.

However, the concentration on community and (hyper)localism is encouraging – it can help set the scene for an ethos of ‘we do this’, rather than digital being done for or to us.My ideal role is to be an enabler of others – my work as a community council web-weaver is about making connections between representatives and representees, to our mutual benefit. My work as an academic researcher is to find out what’s going on, what are good practices, how can these be shared, and then to enable such sharing. So I really look forward to being involved in tackling the research question outlined above.

I was slightly disconcerted – but not surprised – that all the delegates were white, probably middle-class, and mostly over 30. Having said that, inclusion and ethical issues were at the forefront of most delegates’ input – we want digital to be as beneficial to everyone as possible, while leaving room for people to reject digital if they wish. This was analogised to the recent votes for Brexit and Trump – it seems that traditional politics has failed many people so they have turned to the available alternatives, no matter how ghastly they seem to many others, including me. Similarly, if digital is used to spy on or control us, to malignly influence or even corrupt voting, to put us out of work or to make it more difficult to get the services we want, why should anyone accept it?

However, I’m an optimist – I believe, perhaps naively, that eventually we can tame the machine, use it to make positive choices, to influence our leaders towards better choices, to make our own choices, to build our own communities across geographical, linguistic and political barriers, to give us leisure rather than wage-slavery, and to get what we want and need. Even the digital divides we know so well could be lowered by instituting digital proxies, and dystopias can be avoided if we think clearly and act appropriately. (For me, this is the point of social informatics: to investigate what computers are doing to us, and what we should be doing with them.

Remember you’re reading these words on a digital device, on my other monitor I’m looking up bus-times, my iPhone is conveying my love to my partner, communities are using Facebook and other platforms to network, inform, engage and campaign – there is plenty of evidence for this in our IL-DEM results. You imagine you can change the world and you’re right. It’s happening right here, tonight.

Finally, thank you to Napier Centre for Social Informatics for funding my travel to the event, to Simeon and colleagues for organising and hosting the event, and thank you for reading this.

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