Virtual Society?

the social science of electronic technologies


Technology and Social Exclusion

Technology and Social Exclusion
(in association with Foresight ITEC Panel)
Report of a symposium
23rd February 1999
Goring Hotel, London

Brief overview of the discussion

Steve Carver (University of Leeds)
The new electronic technologies have potential advantages for social inclusion in the context of participative decision making: information can travel both ways; anonymity in communication can be less inhibiting to participation; speed of reporting and decision making can be increased. However, other current problems reinforce existing issues of social exclusion: lack of training and expertise; public apathy/antipathy; copyright and confidentiality issues. Since environmental decision making problems - for example, village restructuring, National Park management and radioactive waste disposal - are inherently spatial, they lend themselves to geographical information systems.

Sally Wyatt (University of East London)
The optimistic and pessimistic claims for the Internet have uncanny parallels with claims for other new technologies made throughout history. She noted that the extraordinary growth of Internet usage (from zero to 30 million hosts in 30 years) actually comprises significant shifts in the nature and constituency of usage, and that this is likely to change again. Social exclusion is said to involve disadvantage in terms of consumption, savings, production, politics and social contact. Although up to 50% of a population might be excluded on one dimension, fewer than 5% are excluded on all 5 dimensions. This suggests that exclusion occurs in discrete life categories rather than as a joined-up phenomenon. The suggestion that the current 15-20% penetration of Internet usage is likely to triple within 5 years is thrown into doubt by US material showing that former Internet users now outnumber current ones. People stop using the Internet because they lose institutional access; become bored; find it too difficult to use; and/or it's too expensive. This further suggests that the basis of much current policy - that once people are connected the value of the Internet will become self evident - is erroneous.

Roger Burrows (University of York)
The extraordinary growth in news groups (some 20,000) makes it difficult to find a single issue/facet of the human condition, which does not now have a virtual presence. This is in part a reflection of the new polity. There are now more people in self-help groups than are members of political parties (Giddens). This development has implications for the legitimacy and the quality of information, advice and support. The term "welfare direct" has been coined as analogous with the First Direct banking service (Loader). It is not just a question of access to the technology and who is wired; it is crucially dependent on what you do when you are connected. The emergence of a new virtual middle class. They have the time, inclination, disposition, knowledge, resources and the "reflexivity" necessary to gain systematic advantage. The key is the combination of strategic access both to information and to each other.

1. Patterns of usage are interesting but difficult to get a systematic handle on. There is evidence that teenagers are dropping off the Internet. Will they come back or will they just grow out of it? Homeless groups are enthusiastic users. Elderly people are using it much more than anticipated. There is evidence of a narrowing gap in the gendered use of Internet. This conceals interesting differences, for example, that girls use email much more and games much less than boys.

2. In each application it's important to ask what is the relation between real and virtual uses? We tend to think of technologies in the abstract as substituting for existing activities, and this is the marketing hype. But invariably they turn out to merely to augment or supplement existing activities. 3. We need to avoid thinking of the Internet as either on/off or good/bad. Instead it should be recognised as good for some things and bad for others. It's especially important to understand the Internet as merely part of a network of related activities in which people engage. This is why, for example, it's necessary to do other things /activities to get people to use the Internet, for example, to send out mailshots informing people about web sites, or emails advertising web pages etc.

4. Are we overemphasising the position of the Internet in all this? Penetration of Internet is 15-20% whereas it's almost 100% for TV. Some 5 million people use teletext/ceefax each day (and million use it for more than an hour each day). Will Internet per se die out and its digital TV take over? Or will digital TV merely deliver access to Internet in the future?

5. Do people actually want to be in control of resources, information and access? Perhaps we shouldn't be too quick to assume the desire for access on behalf of all sectors of society. Different groups/people feel more or less comfortable, and hence more or less excluded, in different situations, for example cybercafes and telecottages. We also need to be aware that ridding (ourselves?) of the source of exclusion can also rob certain people of their sense of community and identity, for example in the area of deafness.

6. Is the category of exclusion infinitely elastic? Aren't some people excluded through lack of time? Aren't the super rich in some sense excluded ("exclusive")? A key criterion of inclusion is the ability to share information, experience and resources with peer groups (cf. the old Marxist distinction between a class in itself and a class for itself). It's not true that if you just give people the computers they will become included. (And in any case you also need to give them resources for ongoing maintenance). This follows from the fact that knowledge is socially distributed and, perhaps increasingly, is contested. Information by itself is insufficient. You need peer support of shared experiences and examples to make the information work, to perform or communicate. Thus, for example, there is unlikely to be an inevitable gravitation to general usage in the elderly as the population ages.

We clearly need to know much more about:


Mr Peter Bancroft (Head of Corporate Communications Psion plc)
Mr David Baxter (Social Exclusion Unit Acion Team DTI)
Mr Roger Burrows (University of York)
Dr Steve Carver (University of Leeds)
Dr Bob Chaplow (Manager for Site Characterisation UK Nirex Ltd)
Ms Gillian Crosby (Centre for Policy on Ageing)
Mr Julian Darley
Mr Robert Dickinson (Flextech Television)
Ms Bronac Ferran (The Arts Council of England)
Ms Samantha Hellawell (Director IS Communications) samantha@iscommunications
Dr James Hutton (Business Director UKERNA)
Dr Sonia Liff (Warwick University)
Ms Sarah Mallen (Publishing Director System Simulation Ltd.)
Mr Geoff McMullen (Chief Executive UKERNA)
Professor John Midwinter OBE (University College)
Ms Andrea Millwood Hargrave (Research Director Broadcasting Standards Commission)
Mr Russell Moss (Office of Science and Technology)
Mr Michael Mulquin (Director IS Communications)
Ms Victoria Nye (Director of Training and Education)
Ms Donna Page (Programme Administrator Virtual Society? Programme)
Mr A. Parish (Direcor General Federation of the Electronics Industry)
Mr Jon Pettigrew (Maxus)
Mr Ian Ritchie (President British Computer Society)
Dr Geoff Robinson CBE
Mrs Pat Ryan (Express Link Up Children's Charity)
Ms Lisa Thomas (E-Commerce Team Cabinet Office)
Mr David Thompson (Information Officer SPIN Leicester County Council)
Mr Geoff Vincent (Partner Mediation Technology)
Ms Barbara Walker (Head of Information Society Policy CBI)
Professor Steve Woolgar (Director Virtual Society? Programme)
Mr Neil Worman (DTI)
Dr Sally Wyatt (University of East London)


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