What use are 'online communities' to people living in poverty?
The UK government has a particular idea of what makes an online community, and is putting money and energy into creating such communities across deprived areas in Britain. But what do these cyberspaces mean for the poor people being included in them?
Online communities are seen by New Labour as a key tool for education, employment and social inclusion. Wired-Up Communities (WUC), an initiative by the government’s department for education and skills (DfES), has invested £10million of public money into seven pilot projects connecting ‘disadvantaged communities’ to the internet (1).
The DfES explains that ‘the objective is to assess how individual access to the internet can transform opportunities for people living in these communities by developing new ways of accessing learning, work and leisure services’ (2). Above all, ‘the long-term aim of the WUC programme is improved social cohesion’ (3).
The first of the WUC pilot projects was launched in February 2001 in Kensington, a low-income residential area near the centre of Liverpool, in the north-west of England. Two thousand recycled, internet-enabled PCs, plus printers and software, were distributed for free to residents. Some IT training and support was provided, 51 ‘community champions’ were recruited as ambassadors for the project, and a community website/portal was built.
The results were disappointing. A survey of 200 of the project’s participants, carried out a year after the project began, found that:
- Only half of participants had used their PC to access the internet
- Only a third of participants had undertaken IT training
- ‘Very few respondents (four) had changed their employment situation with only one of them suggesting that access to the WUC technology had contributed to the change’ (4)
Nonetheless, a further six WUC pilot projects have been launched: one in east Manchester; one in an inner-city estate in Blackburn; one in Framlingham (a small market town north of Ipswich); one in Alston Moor (an isolated rural town in Cumbria); one in Brampton upon Dearne (a former pit village in south Yorkshire); and one in an east London estate.
The east London WUC project is the only one of the projects to date that connects participants to the internet via televisions, rather than via PCs. The project was launched in November 2002, in the Carpenter’s estate in the borough of Newham – one of the UK’s most deprived areas, with over 70 percent of the estate’s council tenants receiving housing benefit, and nearly half of the estate’s tenants receiving income support (5).
With the assistance of companies including Microsoft, structured cabling was installed linking all of the estate’s 600 flats, and television set-top boxes that act as computers were provided to tenants, together with software. A company was then set up to make TV programmes about, for, and with the collaboration of the estate’s tenants, to be broadcast over the new system (6). The first of these programmes, Meet the Neighbours, gave every tenant 30 seconds to introduce themselves.
Meet the Neighbours is a good example of the thinking behind Wired-Up Communities. In order to tackle the disillusionment and alienation that goes with poverty, the government is encouraging people to take more pride and interest in their surroundings, and in one another.
Apart from its patronising aspect, this strategy also serves to dress up the circumstances of poverty, rather than seeking to change them. And while internet access is of course a good thing, and may well improve the quality of life of participants in WUC projects, it is no substitute for decent education and housing.
The Carpenter’s estate project also raises tenants’ awareness of the potential dangers of the internet. The project was carried out with the involvement of WiredPatrol, a US charity which specialises in online safety and encourages the reporting of ‘cybercrime’ (7). WiredPatrol worked on the Carpenter’s estate ‘to promote and facilitate…the avoidance of internet stalkers and paedophiles’. Apparently, this was ‘an essential initiative required to engender the confidence of many people to use the internet without fear’ (8).
If the government wants to promote and facilitate use of the internet in deprived areas, why is it propagating the myth that the internet is populated by stalkers and paedophiles? Residents in housing estates are just as capable of surfing the internet without a playground supervisor as are the policy masterminds behind WUC.
There are many projects similar to WUC, run by both the public sector and the private sector in the UK and internationally. Some, such as Digital Communities in Scotland, explicitly claim to be about the creation of online communities (9). Others, such as Computers for Homebound and Isolated Persons in the USA, simply aim to reduce social isolation (10).
One of the most successful projects is Tenantspin, an internet TV station produced by and for the tenants of Liverpool’s 67 high-rise housing blocks (11). The majority of the tenants are elderly, and the housing blocks they inhabit are all scheduled to be demolished in the near furure.
Tenantspin is funded and managed by a combination of local authorities and private institutions. The Liverpool housing authority decided upon themes for Tenantspin content, including ‘edemocracy – discussions on how new technology can enhance democracy’; ‘significant selves – accounts of residents’ individual experiences, views and beliefs’; and ‘thank crunchie – fun content to stimulate involvement’ (12).
Despite the patronising tone of these themes, Tenantspin has been a considerable success, both with its Liverpool audience and more widely. Its guests have included Will Self, it has generated spin-off CDs of music and poetry, and it has attracted the interest of both Sky and the BBC (13). The tenants involved in Tenantspin have travelled to New York to give presentations to local communities there, and have been commissioned by BBC Radio 3 to write a science fiction/comedy drama, Superblock, about what would happen if their housing blocks were all stacked on top of each other (14).
The Tenantspin project was initiated by Superchannel, a network of internet TV channels run by a group of Danish artists (15). Superchannel specialises in going around the world and getting deprived communities to generate and broadcast content.
On one of its channels, called Common People, Superchannel recently toured north-west England getting the homeless to make programmes about their lives (16). The Common People channel is funded by the North West Arts Board Regional Arts Lottery Programme, and aims to challenge the stereotype that the homeless are ‘scruffy, lazy, heroin-addicted, alcoholic, crack addicts going nowhere’ (17).
Some participants in projects such as Superchannel’s obviously benefit from being given access to this technology. But these beneficiaries are limited in number, and the benefits to them are limited as well. These projects have no significant impact on the circumstances of poverty and homelesness. In fact, they encourage people to contemplate their circumstances as they are, rather than as they should be.
Whether initiated by government or privately, online communities for the disadvantaged resemble a cross between missionary work and a laboratory experiment. Michael Wills, UK minister for learning and technology and a champion of the WUC projects, justifies them by warning of the ‘development of an information technology underclass’ (18). But there is no ‘information technology underclass’, any more than there is a ‘dishwasher underclass’ or a ‘car underclass’. There is poverty, and the solution to poverty is wealth.
On the WUC website, under the heading ‘Why “wire up?”, the first reason provided for connecting disadvantaged communities is that ‘research shows that people on high incomes are eight times more likely to have access to the internet than people on low incomes’ (19). You would think the government might conclude from this that high income leads to opportunities for internet use. It is a sign of the extent to which the internet is viewed as both the cause of and the solution to just about everything that the government sees things the other way around.
By focusing on a symptom of poverty – lack of access to information technology – the champions of online community evade the obligation to do something substantial about poverty. And by appointing themselves as saviours, they end up interfering in people’s informal, everyday relationships.
If the circumstances in which people live were genuinely improved, then they could get wired up on their own. And they could form online communities – if that’s what they wanted to do – without interference from a third party.
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)).
State machinery, by Sandy Starr
spiked-seminars: What’s real about the virtual community?, by Frank Furedi and Mike Weber
(1) Wired-Up Communities is funded under the Capital Modernisation Fund. See the Capital Modernisation Fund section of the UK Treasury website
(2) Overview section of the Wired-Up Communities website
(3) Wired-Up Communities Programme: 2nd Interim Report – Exexcutive Summary (.doc 51.5KB), Policy Research Institute, July 2002
(4) Wired-Up Communities Programme: 2nd Interim Report – Case Study for Kensington (.doc 70KB), Policy Research Institute, July 2002
(5) 12,000 homes get wired up in £10m programme, Department for Education and Skills, 16 March 2001
(6) The company is Home 2 Home. Visit the Home 2 Home website
(7) See the WiredPatrol website
(8) Summary section of the Carpenter’s Connect website
(9) See the Digital communities initiative section of the Scottish Executive website
(10) See the Computers for Homebound and Isolated Persons website
(11) See the Tenantspin website
(12) TV gives high rise tenants a say, Working Together Learning Together
(13) See High rise hi-tech, Sean Dodson, Guardian, 31 October 2002; Local residents see ‘Stars in Their Eyes’, Foundation for Art and Creative Technology
(14) See Tenantspin in New York, 2002, Alan Dunn, on the Liverpool Housing Action Trust website
(15) See the Superchannel website
(16) See the Common People section of the Superchannel website
(17) Big Issue vendors at the forefront of pioneering internet television project, Common People, Foundation for Art and Creative Technology
(18) Link up to the future, Gary Bird, Newham Recorder, 21 March 2001
(19) Overview section of the Wired-Up Communities website
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