Keeping IT real

Businesses should wow us with technology first, and hype it up later.

Sandy Starr

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Topics Politics

Much of the discussion around IT seems to be either a postmortem of a bygone age or wild speculation about a distant future.

So Reality IT: Technology and Everyday Life, a new iSociety (1) report by James Crabtree, Max Nathan and Richard Reeves, which assesses the real impact that IT has upon our lives, makes for refreshing reading.

The report was launched in London in July 2002, with Neil Holloway, managing director of Microsoft UK, as guest speaker (2). Holloway’s enthusiasm was infectious, as he assured the audience that ‘there will be devices coming very soon which will change the way we work around the UK’.

But if Reality IT teaches businesses anything, it’s that they should wow us with technology first and hype it up later.

The report opens a bit pretentiously, but not entirely inappropriately, with an epigraph from Martin Heidegger’s philosophical tract Being and Time: ‘The peculiarity of what is close to hand is that, in its handiness it must, as it were, withdraw in order to be handy…. That with which we have our everyday dealings are not the tools themselves. On the contrary, that with which we concern ourselves primarily is the work – that which is to be produced.’ (3)

In other words, IT is a tool with which to achieve things – a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Or at least that’s how most of us see it.

According to the report, ‘the overwhelming majority of people who use information and communication technology see it as a useful tool in everyday life – no more and no less’ (4). Even the internet, once hailed as a brave new virtual world, turned out to be a part of the existing, practical world. ‘No longer a postmodern playground of changing identities and unknown frontiers, pragmatic users have made the internet an extension of their real-world lives.’ (5)

Richard Reeves, one of the report’s authors, boasted at the launch that the report is based on ‘the best data set there currently is’. If this is true, then Reality IT provides reassuring evidence that there has been high penetration of IT into our lives.

Apparently, ‘PCs are now as common as tumble dryers – and in twice as many homes as dishwashers. The proportion of UK homes with a PC today is exactly the same as the proportion with a telephone in 1975.’ (6) Furthermore, whereas ‘five years ago, first-class train carriages were the ones chattering’, nowadays ‘there are “mobile free” sections in first class, while standard class is a symphony of sound’ (7).

This may be great news, but businesses should not take it as a green light to throw new technology at consumers. Unfortunately, many businesses still think that new forms of IT will be embraced by mere virtue of their novelty. This is well illustrated in Reality IT’s chapter on digital TV, which explains how in boardrooms, ‘enthusiasts see interactive TV as a Trojan horse for the digital revolution’, while in reality, ‘people expect their TV to provide entertainment only. The biggest driver for digital adoption has been improved picture quality and a greater choice of channels’ (8).

It is not just businesses that insist evangelically upon the uptake of IT. Governments do, too. The UK government has insisted that lack of access to IT is a crippling form of social exclusion. But while widening access to technology is a laudable goal, this doesn’t mean that everyone necessarily needs or wants to use that technology.

Reality IT points out that ‘technology seen as necessary by governments and experts, are not seen as necessary by non-users’ (9), and argues that ‘it is perfectly possible that a retired teacher living in Aberdeen, whose children and grandchildren live around the corner, will not need internet access’ (10).

Reality IT observes that even those who dislike new technology have a tendency to use it. ‘Perceived disadvantages of technologies, and generally negative attitudes, do not always prove a barrier to uptake…60% of Aversives own a mobile phone, despite consistently unenthusiastic views about the impact of this technology.’ (11) This suggests that people are not averse to IT per se, but rather are (understandably) averse to the hype that surrounds it.

One reason why IT has been so distorted by hype is that those responsible for promoting it are unrepresentative – not inasmuch as they use the technology at all, but inasmuch as their enthusiasm for the technology takes unusual forms. Until now, ‘the debate around the impact of new technologies’ has ‘concentrated on unusually wired minorities perpetuating a theory of technological exceptionalism’ (12).

There’s nothing wrong with being an IT geek. But the particularities of geeks should be recognised in relation to IT, as they already are in relation to other tools and technologies. ‘Enthusiasts…use technology not simply because their work requires them to, or because of perceived efficiency, but because they enjoy it. They are the equivalent of the car owners who see more in their vehicle than the ability to go from A to B; enjoying both driving and tinkering under the bonnet.’ (13)

One of the biggest misconceptions about IT, especially the internet, is that it gives rise to new and intricate communities. The internet may allow for communication between strangers with common interests, but Reality IT points out that in truth, ‘the limited amount of time most people spend online is insufficient to make a significant difference to existing social networks’ (14).

If the online community is something of a myth, then the good news is that the antisocial internet user who withdraws from society is equally mythical. ‘Fears that lonely “internet junkies” populate digital UK seem unfounded. The average time spent online has not actually increased much in the last couple of years.’ (15)

Reality IT does a useful job of bringing the discussion of IT back down to Earth without dismissing the technology’s potential. It’s just a pity that such reports are necessary at all. If we spent less time having to correct distorted perceptions of IT, then we could spend more time meeting the existing needs of consumers, and introducing consumers to new needs they do not yet realise they have.

If the proportion of UK homes with a PC today is equivalent to the number of UK homes that had a telephone 27 years ago, then we need to be working to ensure equivalent or greater progress over the same period from now on.

Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Converging on risk aversion, by James Woudhuysen

Beyond the internet bubble, by Phil Mullan

(1) See the iSociety website

(2) See the Microsoft UK website

(3) Reality IT: Technology and Everyday Life (.pdf 863 KB), James Crabtree, Max Nathan and Richard Reeves, p1

(4) Reality IT: Technology and Everyday Life (.pdf 863 KB), James Crabtree, Max Nathan and Richard Reeves, p2

(5) Reality IT: Technology and Everyday Life (.pdf 863 KB), James Crabtree, Max Nathan and Richard Reeves, p40

(6) Reality IT: Technology and Everyday Life (.pdf 863 KB), James Crabtree, Max Nathan and Richard Reeves, p32

(7) Reality IT: Technology and Everyday Life (.pdf 863 KB), James Crabtree, Max Nathan and Richard Reeves, p44

(8) Reality IT: Technology and Everyday Life (.pdf 863 KB), James Crabtree, Max Nathan and Richard Reeves, p56

(9) Reality IT: Technology and Everyday Life (.pdf 863 KB), James Crabtree, Max Nathan and Richard Reeves, p5

(10) Reality IT: Technology and Everyday Life (.pdf 863 KB), James Crabtree, Max Nathan and Richard Reeves, p4

(11) Reality IT: Technology and Everyday Life (.pdf 863 KB), James Crabtree, Max Nathan and Richard Reeves, p21

(12) Reality IT: Technology and Everyday Life (.pdf 863 KB), James Crabtree, Max Nathan and Richard Reeves, p11

(13) Reality IT: Technology and Everyday Life (.pdf 863 KB), James Crabtree, Max Nathan and Richard Reeves, p25

(14) Reality IT: Technology and Everyday Life (.pdf 863 KB), James Crabtree, Max Nathan and Richard Reeves, p42

(15) Reality IT: Technology and Everyday Life (.pdf 863 KB), James Crabtree, Max Nathan and Richard Reeves, p39

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