Digital Inclusion – Systems Versus Social

Professor Simeon Yeats introduces the conference

There were two broad approaches to digital inclusion discussed at this years Digital Inclusion Research and Policy Conference, organised by Professor Simeon Yeats, and the University of Liverpool. The first focussed on the technologies, systems and processes that are integral to developing skills, access and the ability to engage with platforms and services. The second focussed on the motivations that people have for engaging with these services, and the way that they are motivated to integrate them meaningfully in their lives. Both areas were extensively discussed at this years event, as they show a distinct sub-division of the discussion about how we adapt to a world that is becoming ever-more digital, and every more focused on connecting people through digital networks and devices.

Keynote Speaker Payal Arora talks about the next billion users of the internet

The conference was attended by a mix of academics, policy-development people, and practitioners, all of who were focussed on providing the best support to get a better deal out of the use of technology to underpin our public services, and to foster a culture of empowerment about their use. Speakers came from South America, Africa, Europe, Hong Kong, North America and Australia. The international interest show suggests that there is a widespread need to discuss digital inclusion in all its forms and from many different cultural perspectives.

The aim of the conference was to uncover and discuss how digital inclusion can best be understood as both an area of study and research, and also as an area of practice for people who are actively supporting and engaging with people who are dealing with the challenges of digital change. To do this there has to be a line of entry into the policy development process, and so this relationship between academics and practitioners comes to life when it is connected with the people who cover policy and resource development. This is about getting governments and public authorities, regulators, service developers and planners talking the same language and about the same issues with the people who assess and evaluate the processes and then put them into action. In an ideal world, integrated policy development should be based on experience, evidence and discussions about processes, so this conference is an excellent opportunity for people from different working backgrounds and with different roles to meet-up and think about some of the challenges that digital change is forcing us to face up to.

Two themes were dominant in the presentations that I attended. On the one hand there where the systems-thinkers who tended to look at the classifications, skills and processes for expanding opportunities for inclusion; while on the other hand, there where the social-thinkers who focussed more on the motivations, the social environment and the needs that people identify for themselves as they engage with digital services and networks. Most presentations, of course, crossed over between the two, as the social role of digital inclusion policies were considered in different social situations and using different ways of looking at the problems and processes that define them.

For example, there were lots of studies that reported surveys and long-term studies that show how large-scale population trends emerge and change in the general populations of different countries. While the balancing view looked at the social and psychological motivations that shape the way we perceive the use and benefits of these services. What was often said, though, is that policy makers tend to like quantitative and large-scale research projects because they deliver numbers that can be translated into policy objectives. These policy makers don’t often like smaller scale qualitative research and engagement projects because they are harder to pin down to specifically defined groups within the population.

The systems-thinkers tended to want to conceptualise the challenge of digital inclusion in terms of the accumulation of skills and literacies that would enable people to access and use different platforms and technologies. The counterview was focussed more on understanding the social motivations for accessing or declining to access these same services and platforms. In the systems view there is an expectation that one hundred percent of the population should benefit from having access to, and the confidence to use digital technology, and that the job was largely to explain the benefits to the quality of everyone’s lives by using these technologies. The alternative view was more taciturn, in challenged what could be seen as a totalising and potentially tyrannical model of access that gets imposed on people. Instead, the social model sought to think about the alternative and often contradictory motivations that people have when using or avoiding the apparent benefits that others believe they gain from.

Wrapped up in these discussions were issues of identity, citizenship, privilege, technocentricism, colonialism, corporate greed, commercial monopolisation, manipulation, privacy, trust, responsibility and human rights. The debates about digital inclusion are clearly at the intersection of many issues that need to be more widely discussed. For example, the ethical implications of designing and implementing a large-scale technology project that moves peoples services from one engagement model towards an entirely digital and online model has significant implications for the users of these services.

For example, when local government service information is shifted online the call centres and help desks that were previously used to provide support and help for people often get closed down. The challenge is that many people never get consulted on the way these changes are made. The assumption is that these services are good, and that the benefits of moving them online are readily apparent. Whereas, in practice, there is a knock-on effect that means that people who don’t want to engage with these services in an online capacity are forced to redefine their worldview and embrace what is, for all intents and purposes, an alien culture.

The social setting comes into play in these situations, and has to be understood in relation to a wider set of dynamic processes and interacting motivations. The combination of sociology, anthropology and psychology provides a richer and deeper focus to discussions that otherwise would be technocratic and totalising. For example, many reports about digital inclusion incorporate social behaviourist models of engagement, which are problematic and prone to manipulation. The counterview is that a developmental approach is more socially accountable and ethical, and while it is messier and harder to achieve at a large-scale level of whole populations of people, a more local and socially responsive form of digital engagement is better in the long term.

 These challenges and debates aren’t easily answered at an event like this, but it is encouraging to see that there are many thinkers around the world who are thinking about these issues, testing them, and looking for ways to provide better forms of data and evaluation based on real experiences rather than simply hypothetical suppositions, and then introducing this to the policy development process. Educating the present and the next generation of politicians, systems designers, educators, community developers, policy makers, funding organisations, and so on, would be a good way to take this work forward. It was fascinating to hear and take part in these discussions, and I’m looking forward to thinking about how I can include some aspects of them into my own work. 

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