Bridging the digital divide is about strengthening human networks not internet access.

We can’t bridge the digital divide simply by providing internet access. Stepping across that divide comes when people use the internet to strengthen their social network and enrich their stock of social capital.

When web access is used as an alternative mechanism to passively consume media, adverts, opportunities to buy or even help from public services the power relationship stays essentially unchanged. Earlier today Jo Geary clearly made the point that the digital divide is not simply about acess to technology. Loads of people have access to the internet, but choose to use it rarely or not at all.

That’s what I’m thinking after a couple of hours at the Big Debate on Digital Utopia – Power and powerlessness here in brum. You can watch it here (bambuser provided by Mark Comerford) or read the live coverage here (liveblogged by Pete Ashton).

Chris Unitt blogged about this yesterday, saying that the web becomes attractive to people when we understand they need help reaching it which is pitched at their level.

To my mind the digital divide is much like the economic divide between work and worklessness. If someone has been out of work for a long time it may well be a question of getting them into the flow of new networks, connections that can give them the confidence and the information to find and keep a job.

To step higher up the work chain is again often connected to connections. Strengthening your network to gain greater access to ideas, intelligence, support and encouragement can make the critical difference between being led and becoming a leader. To do this people will often benefit from a mentor or a sponsor, someone in their existing network who’ll get them across the bossed and boss divide.

Also at the big debate was graduate apprentice who’s post neatly summarises some of the key points made during the discussion between: Joanna Geary – Digital Journalist, Birmingham Post; Chris Cooke from Unlimited Media; Anthony Rose – Head of Digital Media for the BBC and Dr Doug Williams – Project Director, BT. Alex Hughes knocked out some neat cartoons for us, whilst Jon Bounds illustrated how online social capital helps substitute for old power conventions rather neatly:

In the pre-internet age, the opinions of panellists, debaters,
those “selected” where the only ones heard and would be automatically
given credence, but now unless the reputation of the speaker precedes
them I can think of twenty people I regularly communicate online with
who would tear the discussion apart with wit and actual experience.It’s those voices that I want to hear and online is the only real way to get them all together.

I was pleased that the Birmingham Post, New Generation Arts Festival and the ICC had brought this group to Birmingham. What really worked for me though was the conversations afterwards, not least bumping into dave Harte in Brindley Place as I left the ICC. Dave blogged this morning about the real question not being today’s question of ‘Digital – More Power or Powerless’ but being Useful or Useless.

But if we are at the forefront then we need to listen to ourselves now
and again. At best we demonstrate the vibrancy of living in an exciting
city with lots to offer but at worst it descends into a curious
uncritical mush and represents our city as one with its head in the
sand – too excitable to see the wheat from the chaff or tell the good
times from the bad.

Time for proof then.

12 comments

  1. Steve Dale says:

    Pretty spot on Nick. Internet access by itself will not breach the digital divide. You also need motivation – seeing some benefit or interest in getting connected, and skills and confidence – the ability to make effective use of the (internet) technology. Providing a free broadband connection to the socially excluded is not the answer unless you also address the motivation and skills aspects.

    As a matter of facts, I’m presenting today on this very topic at http://limehouseusergroup.co.uk/london.html

  2. Agreed, it’s not about the access.

    I used to develop sites for refugees & asylum seekers; and the driver there was the content. If it was stuff people needed, they figured out how to get to it.

    Who will drive the innovative use of all these social web tools? Maybe not silicon valley or the well-connected suburbs, but the people who are tackling society’s grittiest needs.

    Note that, according to experentia, it’s recent immigrants who are driving advanced mobile phone use.

  3. Agreed, it’s not about the access.

    I used to develop sites for refugees & asylum seekers; and the driver there was the content. If it was stuff people needed, they figured out how to get to it.

    Who will drive the innovative use of all these social web tools? Maybe not silicon valley or the well-connected suburbs, but the people who are tackling society’s grittiest needs.

    Note that, according to experentia, it’s recent immigrants who are driving advanced mobile phone use.

  4. Nick Booth says:

    Thanks Steve – how did the presentation go? Dan, its always great to hear from you.

    It occurs to me that there is a strange journey here. We need to persuade the public sector to first understand the technology around social media and then tell them it’s not about the technology – it about relationships and how people fit into their online/offline community.
    It is an exciting prospect!

  5. Hey Nick,
    Caught onto this one a tad late fer various reasons. This is exactly the kind of thing I was struggling to get across at the last bloggers meet. The trick is to almost forget that the tools are computers / IT / technology / internet and just source and adapt to address the motivation / skills / engagement issues. I think the approach to delivery must differ from traditional methods of learning for a few a few reasons. One would be the rate at which the whole social media / internet platform is evolving and another stems from a hint of a fresh approach to acquiring new skills, especially within the adult sector.

    We have been here before and I see similar warning signs to the original internet boom where there was a lot of hype and interest but very little action and quality.

  6. Steve Dale says:

    Hi Nick,

    presentation went ok (I think), but audience seemed a little stunned by it. They were from local authorities who mainly focus on online consultation. I think they may have felt a bit uncomfortable at the end when they realised there were significant gaps in their consultation strategy!

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