In his Digital Britain Final Report, Lord Carter sets out his plan to keep Britain “at the forefront of the digital revolution”. But a revolution needs revolutionaries, who are driven by passion and not just economic incentive. Has this report overlooked the importance of people as volunteers, and the impact on their social contributions of commercial ventures?
Whilst I appreciate that the report is framed as “an active industrial policy” (in the introduction by Lord Mandelson and Ben Bradshaw MP), I do think it has missed the importance of the voluntary aspect of digital engagement.
Creating for love not money
Lord Carter’s report does acknowledge that people are using and sharing stuff differently now, and appears to acknowledge the blurring boundaries between creators and consumers of content and services. But, at the same time, it seems unable to comprehend the ‘marketplace’ as anything fuzzier than ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’. The report itself seeks new models for payment and rights, and the strategy document of the Technology Strategy Board (the body charged with implementing the government’s strategy) considers the challenge of “how to identify opportunities for content producers to generate revenue from consumption of their content”.
But, as Jon Bounds pointed out in a discussion group last week, a great many people are creating content, systems and services without requiring any sort of payment. They may do it because they enjoy it, or they see a need for it, or simply because they can.
For example (and I use ones from Birmingham simply because I know of them), Big City Talk is a translation of Birmingham’s development plan into plain English, by a group of friends who thought it needed doing; Matthew Somerville pushed the web accessibility agenda by autonomously producing an accessible version of the National Rail Enquiries website; Nicky Getgood put Digbeth on the social media map with Digbeth is Good because she just liked writing about it.
As a result, people (generally understood by the Report as ‘consumers’) often become as useful to the commercial ‘producers’ as the producers are to them: except they do it for no financial reward. They are benefiting the economy and society, often in spite of the market.
Physical infrastructure needs support, but so does social infrastructure
This is all possible because people can now share easily, widely and instantaneously. Social interactions can be much faster, more productive, more democratic, less financially constrained and less reliant on the market than before.
The tools that enable these interactions become (and indeed are known as) our ‘social networks’.
Twitter, for example, is to the digital infrastructure as train companies are to railway tracks. Although the former relies on the latter, it is the former that makes or breaks the social advantage offered by the latter. Commercial decisions by train companies can have profound effects on society: for example, if they close a rural line because it isn’t financially viable, the community it served is suddenly cut off from the rail network. The companies are providing a service that uses a physical infrastructure, but the service itself is surely part of our social infrastructure. In the same way, Twitter is as important a part of the social infrastructure as the servers that it relies on are part of the physical.
Team DB (as the Digital Britain team were known) has put a lot of energy into thinking about infrastructure, but – as far as I can tell – this is understood simply in terms of pipes and access: what about the systems that provide our new social infrastructures?
When Twitter goes down it can have a profound effect. For example, when the Iranian authorities tried to black out media coverage of its recent election, Twitter was used by the public as a key tool for communicating news to the rest of the world. However, Twitter had planned an hour of downtime right at the point when Iran needed it most, and so took the commercially dangerous decision to postpone it until the next day. A laudable move, but the downtime still happened while the situation in Iran was unstable.
In the Iran example the downtime was due to planned maintenance, but Twitter buckles under the strain quite frequently: it’s not as reliable as we expect it to be. For example, I now rely on Twitter for managing my social life – in much the same way as many people now rely on mobile companies – so when the service fails I am suddenly cut off from my supportive community.
Certainly the digital infrastructure is crucial, and Lord Carter is right to investigate ways of encouraging innovation and investment in order to ensure it reaches everyone. But government also needs to appreciate the importance of supporting the new social infrastructures (such as Twitter) that are enabled by the digital ones, and to ensure that they’re not undermined by commercial imperatives: as we saw to a degree in the example of Twitter and the Iran election.
People are volunteers, not simply consumers
Yes we need to be commercially competitive if we are to survive and thrive in a digital world; but why? For the sake of it? Or, ultimately, for the sake of people? Surely the economy needs to be healthy in order to benefit people, not the other way round?
People are not just producers or consumers, but individuals who operate on far more complex social levels, driven by love, need, interest, recognition (the list goes on): they are, in the broadest sense, volunteers. As such (and as mentioned earlier) they use the new tools not just to consume, but to create, share, and affect change.
For us all to do so effectively, for us to get the most out of the new tools and infrastructures, requires high levels of digital literacy. Simply knowing how to use the tools is not enough; we need a profound understanding of how to maximise the benefit of those tools and how to adapt them for new circumstances.
The role of the formal education sector in developing skills and aptitudes is acknowledged in Lord Carter’s report, but what about the voluntary* sector? That is, the sector which is – by virtue of being relatively out of reach of government control – often best placed to understand people as people and volunteers, rather than as workers and consumers.
Many charities and community groups are already supporting people in using and understanding digital technologies: how they can be harnessed for personal development, personal wellbeing, civic engagement and social change; all the stuff that people do voluntarily, without expecting any sort of payment.
Add to those voluntary bodies all the loose groupings of individuals who give their time simply because they care (for example Birmingham’s Social Media Surgeries, the recent LocalGovCamp, Rhubarb Radio, numerous bloggers such as Nicky Getgood and Charlie Pinder), and it becomes apparent that a whole swathe of useful talent has been overlooked by Lord Carter’s report.
That talent doesn’t just use tools that are made available by commercial outfits (such as Twitter), it relies on them; more than that: although Twitter (for example) is a commercial venture, it is the users who are shaping its social significance.
For Digital Britain to be a success, there needs – I feel – to be an acknowledgement of the hold that commercial bodies have over our social infrastructures, and a mechanism for managing and regulating that.
In case I’m talking rubbish…
I’m neither an academic nor a researcher, so these thoughts are based alone on my experience and limited reading. Therefore read everything here with critical objectivity (which, to be honest, you should do with everything you read). I had intended to blog this elsewhere, but I’m posting it here first in order to test its credibility.
* In this instance the word ‘voluntary’ is used specifically as part of the label ‘voluntary sector’, which is an umbrella term for charities, community groups and other not-for-profit organisations.