If one were a marxist and read this, one would no doubt make some remark about how class consciousness may rise, and class consciousness may fall, but that alienation from the means of production leads to a fairly flat rate of resistance over time, be it through strikes or through less formal means:
New figures have shown that Brit workers lead the world in "desk
skiving" - the art of aimlessly faffing about at their posts when they
should be lining shareholders' pockets with filthy lucre. Shockingly,
the maths demonstrate that a third of workers may be taking fourteen
days extra hols a year while a hard core of eight per cent admit that
they are texting, doing personal emails or surfing the web for
interesting stories on skiving British workers for an astounding 12
weeks per annum.
I asked a question at one of our events yesterday. It was one of those slightly over-ambitious ones, which, if pulled off, leave the audience shaking their heads and shouting "no waaaay!" like the audience of David Blaine's street magic, but which usually fall flat on their face. Like Blaine in his pointless glass box, mine did the latter. So I'm going to have an asynchronous shot at the same point.
Yesterday's discussion was about digital inclusion, and what to make of the 40% of people who really don't seem to want to use the internet. Do we leave them be? Educate them until their choice is deemed an informed one? Empower grass roots networks, through which internet use is supported? In amongst these choices, a couple of things were assumed. Firstly, that internet access brings social goods, such as convenient interaction with organisations, different types of social ties, and a wealth of information. Secondly, that 'the internet' is what we really need to be concentrating policy on, and not other telecom or broadcast networks (such as telephones or community radio).
But while both points clearly stand for the 60% of people who already use the net, how can we assume that they do for the other 40%? If one looks at the contemporary (deeply unpleasant) communitarian political climate, it is perfectly possible that social integration, globalisation and openness are not things many people want at all, and that their antipathy towards the internet demonstrates a correct instinct that this is not, by design, a very communitarian tool. The early Cisco and Accenture adverts (Chinese children saying "are you ready?" etc) gave the game away: this is a technology of multi-cultural capitalism, exactly as its inventor hoped.
Hence it is no surprise that mobile phones do not suffer from a digital divide in the UK. This is not inspite of the fact that they can't be used for filing a tax return or trading on eBay, but because they can't. For many people, they are specifically and unambiguously a tool for getting closer to those you are already close to. And even if they can be put to more public purposes - and yes, OK, they can - symbolically, they remind us of our private lives, close community, intimacy, our personal space and body (the principle difference from either fixed lines or the internet is that I am the gatekeeper of my own mobile number). The internet salesmen may have ditched the global Accenture-speak, in favour of pictures of families gathered merrily around an ever-so-safe broadband connection, but this re-branding is nothing more than that. Of course the internet is unsafe! Of course it's full of viruses and spam! It's the world wide web, for God's sake, and there's some pretty macro politics going on out there.
Those of use who benefit from greater and more public social connectivity can deal with the downsides, and that may correlate to around 60% of the population. That other 40% are not stupid, but want technologies that point unambiguously towards community, and not towards some '90s vision of the global village. So my question was, 'Is the intenet, like liberalism, all a bit pre-911 for the UK these days?'.
This morning, with my professional hat on, I've launched an attempt at a public consultation, at the Digital Manifesto weblog. I really have no idea whether this will work or not. I imagine a few people will be scoffing, saying "god, I tried that when I was working for Lyndon Johnson, but arpanet users wouldn't play ball." But lets see.
David Halpern and I organised a seminar at the Cabinet Office last week for Paul Resnick, who was over visiting from the States. Paul made the argument that socio-technical change occurs in three phases. Firstly, a new technology subsitutes for an older one (a pretty disputable point, but go with it). Secondly, the supply of that new technological affordance rises, and the cost falls. Thirdly, a whole range of broader institutional and behavioural changes take place, built around the new technological capability.
Which is kind of what I'm getting at in a new piece [pdf] written for The Future Laboratory's latest Viewpoint magazine. What I'm particularly interested in is the
possibility that the early adopters and pioneers of a new technology have far more in common with their mainstream followers than we like to think, if we look at technology as the throwing off of constraints. What the pioneers do exuberantly, the rest of society will also do, just in larger numbers and less artfully. As I argue in the piece:
The dawn of the motorcar in the early twentieth century enabled exciting new forms of consumer behaviour. Wealthy young men with some mechanical know-how could take friends and family on open-top trips to the sea-side, careering round country lanes, enjoying the sheer thrill of independent mobility. This hedonism is captured in F Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, in which the hero organises pointless drives into New York City, purely because he can. But a sense of unreality pervades Gatsby's character; society barely impinges on his world. The cars, the city and the people he encounters are all part of his game, and he plays them for fun.
Half a century later, the social realities of the car had emerged. Suburbanisation, out-of-town supermarkets, school runs, fly-overs, strip malls and 'Drive Time' radio. The cultural impact of the car lay not in the way that people consumed automobiles themselves, but in its spill-overs. The technology had not transformed society. Society had transformed itself, using the new technology.
So is there no grain of sociological truth in the image of Gatsby and friends, skidding around Long Island? Certainly it bears little visible resemblance to that of the commuter boxed-in in rush hour traffic. Yet both exist in the same cocoon. The pioneer revels in the newness of the technology to escape. Decades later, society adopts the same technology as a personal shield. Whether as game or as necessity, technology is how we manipulate the world, including our social world. It saves us from dependence on the here and now. As Scott Lash puts it, "technological culture is culture at a distance".