Connection failures

Following on from the previous post on the challenges of using digital technology to tackle social problems, I was interested to read this post by freelance communications and public relations specialist,  Jon Kedwards. As can be seen from the comments, I questioned the author’s statement that: “It’s important that more deprived communities are able to use the same tools that are bringing together many more middle class activists“.

I questioned the statement not because I disagree with the idea that it’s important that people living in more deprived communities have the opportunity to use these tools if they want to. My question is what, in practice, are digital tools enabling middle class people to do that would enable deprived communities to become less deprived?

I’m not especially old (I’m 30) but I’ve been interacting with policy discussions around what has been called – and may still be called – ‘the digital divide’ for about 10 years. In the early years of the previous decade, the then New Labour government was extremely keen on persuading ‘more deprived communities’ – in those days described as ‘socially excluded’ – to get online. As well as setting up Online Centres, there were also a number of schemes that actually involved going into particular areas and giving people computers.

I don’t know to what extent it’s currently considered that Online Centres or any of these specific schemes to tackle the digital divide have or haven’t worked. And I’m not clear to how far, if it all, the current digital championing being undertaken by Martha Lane Fox, draws on the lessons of the apparently very similar work that was taking place previously. Maybe previous efforts just weren’t very successful but, if so, it might be worth considering why they weren’t successful.

Either way, the present enthusiasm for digital social change mostly goes beyond nuts-and-boltsy stuff about paying your council tax online to ideas for improving public services and local communities through the use of social media. In terms of these ideas, my starting contention – that some current projects seek to address but many apparently ignore – is that the successful use of digital tools by middle class activists is a symptom rather than a cause of their social status.

If you want to prevent the closure of a public service in your local area – or support the development of a new community organisation – then you need to have the knowledge, connections and confidence to mobilise the support of some other people in your area then contact and make demands of local decision-makers. As the RSA’s Connected Communities project is in the process of pointing out, social networks are key in enabling communities (and particular people within those communities) to shape social change. But social networks doesn’t necessarily mean online social networking platforms.

It is useful to be able set up a Facebook campaign in support of a service but it’s ultimately more useful to understand who in the council takes a particular decision and the basis on which they do so – and, if possible, to be able to talk them directly about what you and your group want to happen. The key advantage ‘middle class activists’ – or, more accurately, well networked people from any social group – have is knowing how things work, understanding the location of levers of power and having the confidence to attempt to pull on them. That’s what’s needed by more deprived communities if they are going to become less deprived.





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2 responses to “Connection failures

  1. David, It’s interesting that the blog makes reference to the production of All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. There’s a key point in 1996 when Brookesley Born confronts Greenspan, Rubin and Summers over OTC derivatives. This is the same year that P-CED pitches to the President for an alternative to capitalism, which will later reflect in for-profit social enterprise models like the CIC. It is about economic and digital inclusion, and should resonate today as we see what’s happening in Spain and Greece.

    “We are at the very beginning of a new type of society and civilization, the Information Age. Historically, this is only the third distinct age of civilization. We lived in an agricultural age for thousands of years, which gave way to the Industrial Revolution and Industrial Age during the last three hundred years. The Industrial Age is now giving way to the Information Revolution, which is giving rise to the Information Age. Understanding this, it is appropriate to be concerned with the impact this transition is having and will continue to have on the lives of all of us. In that it is a fundamental predicate of “people-centered” economic development that no person is disposable, it follows that close attention be paid to those in the waning Industrial Age who are not equipped and prepared to take active and productive roles in an Information Age. Many, in fact, are scared, angry, and deeply resentful that they are being left out, ignored, effectively disenfranchised, discarded, thrown away as human flotsam in the name of human and social progress. We have only to ask ourselves individually whether or not this is the sort of progress we want, where we accept consciously and intentionally that human progress allows for disposing of other human beings.”

    Leveraging digital inclusion in Russia was problematic due to powerful “local interests” and the requirement for ISPs to install SORM-2 a costly monitoring package from the KGB.

    When brought to the UK in 2004, the proposal was for a franchise of ‘community interest’ broadband installations where 50% of surplus would be re-invested in CDFIs, the remainder retained by a managing CLG for growth. Today on the Guardian blog about Dotnation, I related how what I was describing to the SEC leader, must have seemed like someone coming from another planet. I was describing a community interest company and more, free to use, while public money was being spent on developing the CIC model. To reply and acknowledge would have been career sucide.

    So we move to Ukraine and in our strategy for ‘Microeconomic Development and Social Enterprise’ argue the social and economic case for national scale deployment of affordable broadband. Profits once more to be invested in addressing fundamental social problems which are ‘less than full cost recovery’. Success was reflected just a year later in national rollout of wireless broadband, at the suggested level of cost and based on Nortel wireless infrastructure under the brand PeopleNet.

    Today we confront local government head on regarding the apparent contradiction between the aims of Big Society and their exclusion of community based local initiatives. It is part of the conversation on Our Society because we are not alone in this experience.

    By and large, these community driven initiatives generally fail because there is a potential for profit. BT for example has been grooming leaders of public services through their Vital Vision programme.

    The social and economic case for broadband as an instrument of local economic development available online, can be used by the like of Martha Lane Fox, hardly interested in inclusion in the past, to build reputation as a champion of inclusion today.without the obstacles presented to the early advocates.


  2. Well David, hopping from one blog to the next I see that this discussion ripples across several. I add a comment on a couple, they await moderation. The Guardian doesn’t offer a voice to all, but I add comments when it relates to something we engage in. Does one see much conversation there

    I write to the chair of the SEC, APPGs, government departments, local support and development agencies and even our local council about social enterprise and I have no replies.

    I’m having a conversation about social networks with people who won’t engage in them and won’t let me engage with them either?


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