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Job opportunities: the eternal beta version of a paradise-to-be

The European Commission recently published a report addressed to the European Council on "Job Opportunities in the Information Society" which reaches the conclusion that despite the "bright prospects" for Europe "there is worrying evidence that the EU is not making the most of the potential of the Information Society".

Remedies ...

Amongst the remedies proposed are:
  • Develop an enterprise culture in which new ideas, new start-ups, new products and new services can flourish;
  • Promote organisational change and adaptability so as to "exploit new technologies to improve efficiency, develop new products and services and unleash the creativity and innovation of the workforce";
  • Boost skill and levels of technical literacy as well as promoting access for all.
At the risk of being called a "kultur pessimist" by EU Commissioner Martin Bangemann - a name he coined in his opening speech to the 3'500 delegates gathered at IST98 in Vienna - I'd like to question those glowingly fuzzy conclusions.

Sleeping out in the cold

As I read the twenty-five page report that had been handed out to journalists during a press conference at IST98, I couldn't help wondering why a text on such an important theme should leave me so uninspired. Was it the memory of those two homeless men sleeping out in the bitter cold of the Viennese night in the Mexikoplatz that clashed with this apparently reassuring text? Two people: statistically insignificant maybe, but humanly unpardonable. Or was it lassitude? Haven't we heard this all before? But has anything changed? Or was it irritation at this litany of well-meant concerns and good intentions masquerading as an action plan? Who can possibly disagree with good intentions? But what use having such intentions if they don't translate into acts - lest it be to reassure ourselves that we are on the right road and are capable of getting things done?

Technical literacy?

One aspect of the report did spark off my interest: the emphasis put on "technical literacy" and the conclusion that resources be "reallocated" to remedy its lack. Maybe I'm over suspicious, but an insistent question sprang immediately to mind: "What other learning activity would be sacrificed in educational budgets to make way for technical literacy?" Then I found myself wondering about this peculiar juxtaposition of the technical and the literate. What could it really mean? Maybe it had something to do, I asked myself, with the official EU statement quoted in the report: "Technical literacy is quickly becoming as important as the ability to read"? Hold on a moment, isn't there something odd about such an affirmation? Of course people have to know how to use the tools, but if a technology aimed at widespread use is difficult to employ then there must be something wrong with the tools. Once you've got over the reticence about the technology - by the way Mr. Bagemann assured the gathered delegates at IST98 that the time for reticence was over - using a computer and accessing the Internet is not so difficult. Provided, of course, that something doesn't break down - which invariably it does. When are we going to get a reliable, simple-to use system instead of paying for an eternal beta version of paradise-to-come?

... or rather non-technical competencies?

Despite all its vaunted multimedia merits, you can't get very far on the Internet if you can't read. And if you want to express yourself you have to be able to write too. And if you want to act responsibly you have to understand the wider context as well. Contrary to what this EU report puts forward, it is not technical "literacy" that will be the central competence of tomorrow - if it is somewhat important today, that is probably only a question of transition - but rather a series of non-technical competencies albeit partly dictated by this new technological environment. Writing for the online context is one such skill. Facilitating exchange, learning and online working would be another. That's where the empowerment lies.

Alan McCluskey, Vienna.
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Created: November 30th, 1998 - Last up-dated: November 30th, 1998