Today's seminar at the the University of Dundee went really well, and I think my 10 conversation starters proved a useful contribution. One that certainly produced some discussion was "Many people don't want to use the Internet. Why should they?". I was following Kevin Harris, who said he feared that the UK Government had "given up" on the last 20 percent of people, and that this had serious implications for social inclusion policy. Not least, as others pointed out, because Government is committed to all public services being online by 2005, and non-users are among those most in need of accessing information, services and other benefits.
My point was that we don't expect everyone to drive a car... taxpayers fund public transport. If we really believe in designing systems as if people mattered, shouldn't we continue to provide channels of service and communication? But as others pointed out, that costs money that might be better used on other programmes....On the other hand, we are prepared to incur costs to provide for those with disabilities.
We reached agreement, I think, around the proposition that people should have the opportunity to use the Net if they want to... but perhaps not be obliged to.
We also agreed that doing formal computer and Internet courses is not going to be a big attraction for reluctant users... but that as funding runs down for UK online centres and similar initiatives that's what will mainly be on offer in many. It is is tough for centres to find the funding or volunteers to offer informal learning and creative active.
Ideas from several speakers that produced nodding heads and contributions were that online communication is moving to the mobile, personal and home focussed; and that what often gets people interested in news technology these days is digital cameras, video and music.
The title of the seminar was Social Inclusion, Democracy and Community Development in a Digital World, and it was organised by Ian Ball, Head of the Department of Community Education, at the University of Dundee.
Ian started us off by reconceptualising the digital divide: "The focus so far seems to have been on providing hardware and software and access to communities.
"Insufficient attention seems to have been given to the human and social systems that must also change for technology to make a difference.
"Content and language, literacy and education, and community and institutional structures must all be taken into account and embedded into any sustainable strategy.
"From a policy standpoint, the goal of using ICT with marginalised groups is not to overcome a digital divide, but rather to further a process of social inclusion, democracy and democratic governance."
My sense at the end of the day was that people agreed with that view, but we couldn't see from where any substantial leadership would come. Government is winding down funding on hardware, software and access without any visible strategy to tackle the wider issues Ian identified. The development processes of the last few years have not left strong networks and alliance among nonprofits either. I hope someone will disagree...
I'm glad to get an email from Graham Lally saying he has started a conversation on this topic on Phil Jones Thought Storms wiki. You can join in here. Nice bit of joining up.