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Reframing “digital inclusion”

brixton MP edit
With MP Helen Hayes, one of our MPs

Yesterday, we were thrilled to visit Parliament as “Digital Heroes” award winners in the category of Sustainability.

We met loads of other great projects from Newcastle to Dagenham nearby, mostly relating to online and computer literacy: helping excluded groups access and use online services safely and effectively. Many were very much embedded in their communities, drew from peer-to-peer methods, and were focused on empowerment and design with (not for) people.

All of which we loved.

In a sense this was our first formal meeting with this sector, which is very close to ours. Like “makers”, we consider “digital inclusion” activists our kin.

In fact there are huge overlaps in our work. Imagine somebody is struggling with their laptop or tablet “running slow” because of poor maintenance or malware, and that this somebody is demotivated or unable to get online? Is this a “Restart” issue, related to preventing waste and empowering tech users? Or a more classic “digital inclusion” issue? It’s both!

However we feel a certain unease with the current framing of “digital inclusion”. We would like to suggest much more reflection and critical engagement within our digital inclusion peers about an unquestioning, passive “consumption” model, not only of the hardware itself, but of software and the infrastructure that fuels the internet.

Issues of safety and privacy are a good gateway into these questions. And the Mozilla “web literacy” or “web maker” approach of encouraging people to produce and create the web (and not just consume) is another alternative. But it does not go far enough.

Our favourite essay critiquing conventional definitions of “digital inclusion” actually dates from 2003. Brazilian academic André Lemos’ words still ring very true, almost 12 years later

Can we really measure social inclusion by the number of computers per capita, by the number of internet users and other like statistics? Again, including means here adapting, moulding and forming individuals able to use software and operating systems that can be out of date in only a few months…

I understand inclusion as the cognitive ability to dominate, change, and deconstruct discourses, and to alter the circulation of prêt-a-porter products of the factory of illusions…

Perhaps the true social inclusion is through educating on the new media, not just the techniques, but through the development of a critical thought and disquiet in relation to that which they sell us as the newest, best thing, that will just rot in front of us… 

Let’s broaden digital inclusion to include critiques and alternatives to the status quo. As Lemos said “exclude yourself to include yourself” and whatever you do, don’t believe the hype. (Even ours!)

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