Can information technology solve social, political and cultural problems? It's good, but not that good.
It is 20 years since Tories Margaret Thatcher and Kenneth Baker declared 1982 the year of information technology (IT), positioning Britain as a world leader in the ensuing ‘micro-electronics revolution’. Yet two decades on and for most of us the ‘information age’ remains just another example of why futurologists should not be trusted.
With hindsight, it isn’t surprising that hover boots, jetpacks and meals-in-pill-form failed to become part of everyday life. But more down-to-Earth technological sure-things have also failed to take the world by storm. In recent years, many shareholders and bankers received a comeuppance with the spectacular implosion of the dotcom industry (1). Those consumers brave enough to venture online have plenty of horror stories about the trials of ‘e-tailing’ and internet banking. At a more refined level, the death of the printed page and handwritten word seems to have been greatly exaggerated – and the less said about the non-appearance of virtual sex and teledildonics the better.
In short, very little of the technological hype that we have been exposed to recently has materialised. So much so that most people have grown weary of being told about the Next Big Thing in IT that really will change their lives.
This sense of digital disappointment has yet to reach Westminster. Since coming to power in 1997, New Labour has been gripped by a love affair with all things technological. At first, many thought this was just a phase the government was going through – that they had got swept along by the pre-millennial tensions of the moment. But a year-and-a-half into the twenty-first century and talk of making Britain an equitable, harmonious and successful ‘e-nation’ is as prevalent as ever. The New Labour/new technology coupling looks like it is here to stay.
At the start of 2002 we were told by New Labour leader of the House of Commons Robin Cook that our democracy will be restored through online voting and email consultation with ‘the people’ (2). Then education minister Estelle Morris tried to convince us that computers will be the new teaching assistants of the future – helping disaffected and disadvantaged pupils to ‘reach their potential’ (3). These promises followed previous initiatives aiming to computerise the Post Office, benefits network and the National Health Service (NHS). If the government is to be believed, no public policy sector will be spared a technological makeover that will transform how we conduct our lives.
Such high profile/low impact initiatives would only be of passing interest if so much faith, time and money were not being vested in them as credible alternatives to real ‘offline’ action. Our politicians may be happy to wait for a technological gravy train that never arrives. But, in the meantime, the rest of the country suffers, as obvious practical steps that are far less glamorous – but far more effective – fail to be put in motion. If you ask most headteachers or parents whether they would like to employ one extra well-trained teacher or buy 25 new computers, Estelle Morris might find her technological zeal falling on deaf ears.
Our politicians seem oblivious to the fact that their technological interventions are likely only to scratch the surface of the problems that they seek to solve. The reason that 41 percent of adults chose not to vote in the June 2001 general election was not the inconvenience of having to physically cast a vote in a ballot box (4). The reason that some children do not flourish at school is not because they suffer from a lack of the one-to-one teaching opportunities that can apparently be offered by a computer. The reason that over one million car owners don’t pay their road tax is not because of a collective shyness to take a walk down to the Post Office.
IT will not and cannot solve the fundamental social problems that some claim it can. And this is the inherent problem of IT-based public policymaking – the crucial factors that need to be addressed in today’s society are social not technical. If even half the effort currently being spent on the government’s online fantasy society was redirected towards the offline social realities of e-Britain, then the information age would be a far more pleasant prospect for all of us.
Neil Selwyn is a lecturer at the Cardiff University School of Social Sciences, and coauthor of The Information Age: Technology, Learning and Social Exclusion (University of Wales Press). Buy this book from Amazon (UK)
From ABC to ICT, by Helene Guldberg
No votes for e-democracy, by Mark Birbeck
Connecting to what?, by Sandy Starr
(1) See A tale of two dot.bombs, by Sandy Starr
(2) See No votes for e-democracy, by Mark Birbeck; and Connecting to what?, by Sandy Starr
(3) See From ABC to ICT, by Helene Guldberg
(4) See The apathy debate
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