The tyranny of technology

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Promoting healthy eating, tackling truancy, improving 'social inclusion': the great potential of IT is being used for instrumental political ends.

The contrast couldn’t be more striking. Rwanda, 13 years after its bloody civil war, is pouring money into information technology (IT) and is fast becoming the hub of Africa, transforming from a society riddled with desperate poverty to one of promise (1). Google has sensed an opportunity and is promising to offer some 20,000 Rwandan university and government staff members engineer support for its freely available software (2). Compare this kind of IT hope to the UK’s attitude. Here, technology is high on the public agenda but, in contrast to Rwanda, the lack of ambition is striking.

The growing number of ‘e-awards’ is a case in point. From the eLearning Awards, which ‘rewards excellent practice in using ICT [Information and Communication Technologies] for learning across Europe’ (3) to the eWell-Being Awards, which ‘celebrate the social, economic and environmental benefits’ of ICT (4), each purportedly seeks out examples of how to use technology for the public good. And the rewards are high – for instance, recently Sunderland City Council won the Digital Challenge Competition and received £3.5million from the government (5).Yet most e-awards bring to light the hold technology has over those who govern us: our rulers seem to be using technology to re-legitimise themselves. The great potential of IT is undermined when it is used for petty political agendas; what we are left with is an ‘IT- support’ economy in its truest sense.Consider campaigns for ‘digital inclusion’, which have become a major focus for funding and social renewal around Britain. It is questionable whether IT is actually being used for the right reasons here. While new sources of funding for digital measures is obviously good news for local authority accountants, what does it really mean to those who have been ‘digitally included’? In addition to Sunderland City Council, nine other local government finalists were awarded money (so that no one ended up a loser) in the Digital Challenge Competition. All nine, we are told, provided clear evidence of ‘cross-government, cross-sector’ collaboration. Sunderland won because it was ‘recognised as an example in how ICT technologies can be used to tackle social exclusion’. It had proposed ideas such as ‘e-Champions’ to help vulnerable groups access computer and internet services, providing children and their carers with walkie-talkies and panic buttons, and ‘e-mentoring schemes’ for underachieving children and young people.More recently, the eWell-Being awards (6), organised by SustainIT, part of the UK Centre for Economic and Environmental Development, also rewarded those using technology in pursuing public-focused agendas and policy. Categories include ‘Better ways of working’, ‘Building Social Networks’, ‘Climate Change and Environmental Efficiency’ and ‘Inclusion Through Partnership and Innovation’.Winners included Glasgow’s Fuel Zone reward scheme. Fuel Zone promotes healthy eating for kids. It encourages them to use an electronic swipe-card to pay for their food in participating schools. Every time they buy something, their menu choices get uploaded to a centralised database. Healthy menu choices are rewarded with extra points, and kids who earn more points can choose to spend them on ‘prizes’, including cinema tickets and iPods.Promoting healthy eating to kids is no bad thing. But often what seems like a good idea has hidden subtexts that detract from its original purpose and devalue it. As the E-Government Bulletin (which sponsored the eWell-Being awards) says, the Fuel Zone aims to go beyond just promoting healthy eating to kids. The project has wider goals, including to ‘keep pupils in schools at lunchtime; to tackle theft by reducing the need for children to carry cash; and to improve overall levels of school meal consumption’ (7). This suggests that the implementation of new technologies is often motivated by old ideas about out-of-control kids, or new ideas about obese children eating themselves into an early grave. Here, an IT breakthrough is used to bolster already existing prejudices and to further the authorities’ ability to monitor young people’s behaviour.The project will also contribute towards improving the image of Glasgow’s ‘school meals service among key target groups’. Apparently, a survey in 1996 found that 79 per cent of pupils thought the service poor. The future of the scheme may even extend to promoting good pupil behaviour in the classroom, with points awarded for ‘special project work or other special achievements’ (8).With such a long list of priorities and subtexts, it would be a wonder if all the goals were ever achieved. And isn’t teaching a better method of educating children and getting them to behave themselves? Of course, new technology is more likely to get publicity and support than calls for more teachers or higher educational standards that might actually help to improve both the image of the service and begin to turn around low attendance.New Labour has for a long time taken a keen interest in technology. Various schemes for using new technologies have addressed a wealth of issues, from social inclusion to promoting e-Government and tackling low voter turnout in local and national elections. But the extent to which many of these ‘schemes’ actually improve people’s lives is debatable – especially if they come at the expense of addressing the underlying causes of inequality, exclusion and poor service.The focus on IT as a cure for social ills seems to be driven by politicians’ distrust in, and fear of, the public. They want to keep the public in check and monitor our behaviour, creating ever-more complicated and dysfunctional database systems and surveillance schemes, yet they also want to do it from a safe distance – through technology rather than anything like direct engagement.As it happens, the way Sunderland City Council intends to use IT may well confirm what they set out to challenge. Since its target groups are already demarcated as ‘vulnerable’, those dependent on local services and in need of the guiding hand of third party intervention, the council may just be entrenching and reinforcing their status as ‘socially excluded’.To a varying degree, what we are seeing is the expansion of an ‘IT-support’ culture, which is not technology-driven. Technology is used to implement misplaced and moribund political agendas that cannot make a significant impact on their own. If all the social problems massed together in the term ‘social exclusion’ really are of concern to politicians, they should not pretend that IT is a panacea. We need decent political debates about such problems, and a more open-minded and experimental approach to the use of technology. For some ideas about how to solve the problem of Britain’s lack of technological ambition, perhaps we should look to Africa.Footnotes (1) Poverty-stricken Rwanda puts its faith and future into the wide wired world, Guardian, 1 August2006(2) Google joins the technology push into sub-Saharan Africa, Guardian, 4 April 2007(3) See the eLearning Awards website(4) See the description of the eWell-Being Awards on the SustainIT website(5) See the Digital Challenge website(6) See the SustainIT website(7) E-Government Bulletin special focus issue: eWell-Being awards, March 2007(8) Ibid