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Still slipping through the Net?

This article first appeared in Arts Professional, Issue 169.
Hannah Rudman reflects on the work emerging from Futurelab’s Digital Inclusion project and considers whether the digital divide is a last century anxiety, or still of concern to the cultural sector, as we consider investing in more digital content developments.

Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are at the heart of the interconnected logic of early 21st century life. Many of these “online” developments replicate rather than replace existing “offline” activity (in the cultural sector, audiences can now see what’s on and buy tickets and buy tickets online as well as offline). The technology-driven nature of a globalised society is empowering for some individuals and groups; dis-empowering, marginalising and fragmenting for others. The term “digital divide” was coined in the 1990s, and was widely used to define the gap between the technological haves and the technological have-nots (the technological haves experiencing easy access to hardware, software and connectivity).

The policy community and IT industry now consider the digital divide a “dead” issue – nothing more than “a last century anxiety” . The English government has done away with the Office of E-Envoy, and would claim great success in lessening the digital divide in terms of widening access to ICT resources, skills and support for the socially disadvantaged, through schemes like ICT for All, UK Online, Wired-up Communities and Computers Within Reach. Yet, look beneath the surface, and you see that policymakers are being encouraged to “mainstream” digital technologies – the case finally “made”, rather than “solved” – whether through the digital switchover or Building Schools for the Future.

But it seems that as ICT becomes woven into the fabric of the everyday lives of everybody that the divisions in our ICT use are deepening rather than diminishing. Digital equity is not simply about physical access to resources, but “relative” to others in society.

“Digital literacy” means more than being able to operate common ICT tools effectively – these number, language and technical skills are needed alongside a creative and critical set of skills and understandings that help people productively engage with an evolving digital world. Academics from the LA Centre for New Media Literacy reflect:
“No longer is it enough to be able to read the printed word; children, youth, and adults, too, need the ability to both critically interpret the powerful images of a multimedia culture and express themselves in multiple media forms” .

New uses of ICT are emerging around the nascent information society/knowledge economy. Now, the term “digital divide” is more about whether they have the skills to recognise when to use ICTs; and whether they have the skills to actively participate – whether its to buy a ticket for Glastonbury, or vote for your favourite Nancy in “I’d Do Anything.” We need to move beyond our conventional understanding of the term “digital divide”, and address the area of digital inclusion in more nuanced terms. The digital divide is now a social rather than simply a technical or economic issue.

Digital inclusion is about whether the individual “understands” the potential benefits of ICT use; and whether that ICT-based activity “fits” with the wider context in which they are operating. About whether the individual has the skills, and understands the values and context and outcomes of activity and practice – what could be referred to as “smart” useage – using digital technologies as and when appropriate.

We would expect “digital natives” (0-25 year-olds who have grown up with technology seamlessly in their lives) to be super-served by ICTs in this instance, intuitively understanding, and operating smartly. On the other hand, we might expect “digital immigrants” (25+ year olds, who have learnt how to use ICTs having grown up amongst different communication and learning frameworks) to do less well, but actually, emerging research findings paint a more complex and nuanced picture of people’s experience with digital technologies. There are multi-layered realities of ICT use, and the new digital divide is more about whether individuals have the skills to participate actively in digital cultures and understand them.

Rather than being depressed about the digital divide’s continuing existence, the cultural sector can be excited about the part it can play in lessening the digital divide by developing “the wow factor” through digital content. We are used to reaching out to the socially excluded – many cultural organisations aspire to providing inclusive, participative, creative experiences as part of their mission statements.

We have to remember that individuals from all sectors of society – not just those considered socially disadvantaged or non-ICT users – can be digitally excluded we then have an excellent starting point for thinking about digital development in a socially responsible manner that acknowledges the digital divide. The following thought-starters might help:
• We provide relevant digital content and services – but are users aware of the breadth of possibilities on offer? Do we signpost these digital possibilities in venue and online? (For example, do people know that they can book an interval drink online? Are there signs over the bar to inform people that they could do this next time? What about on the online ticketing webpages?)
• Do we provide informed choice about whether or not an activity might best suit some people on/offline? (For example, if you want to buy tickets in the same place in the house for each night of The Ring Cycle, you might be better off going to the box office in person than trying to achieve this via the online ticketing system)
• Do we encourage participation by promoting relative ICT skills development? (For example, do the online shop pages have helpful hints and tips about how best to use the shopping basket?)
• Do we offer participative digital opportunities that empower rather than impose, that seek ways of involving people in finding their own ways of addressing a situation, that encourage organic, from the bottom-up community growth? Think Flash Mobs , Blogger meet-ups or the UK at Home photography project. We can get beyond the new digital divide and should still invest in digital developments. We need to ensure that the digital production and distribution of our cultural content and services is underpinned by social justice principles that promote genuinely open access, and that means taking responsibility for helping our audiences overcome the digital divide.