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People First or Market and Technology First?

"Living and Working in the Information Society: People First" is the title of a new European Commission Green Paper (COM(96) 389) published by the Directorate General for Employment, Industrial Relations and Social Affairs (DGV). The aim of the Green Paper is to "promote wide discussion and awareness of the social and societal issues" involved in the Information Society.

"People First...2: what a promising title, coming as it does after several other inspiring papers and reports about aspects of the Information Society. Putting people first? The expression conjures up the idea of giving people priority over considerations of technology and market economy. Yet, on reading the Green Paper, the reader is left with a somewhat uneasy feeling that the authors' vision of the Information Society remains anchored in the technology and the economy, and, as such, is at odds with their praise-worthy aims.

One of the assumptions of the authors of the Green Paper is that the Information Society - essentially seen in terms of tools - will be of undoubted benefit to all members of society, in particular by creating jobs for the unemployed (provided they get the right training). While it is possible - but by no means certain - that Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) provide the potential to achieve such goals, their actual achievement itself depends more on the ways those tools are used than on the technology itself. It is the age-old debate about technological determinism: although technology dictates, to a certain extent, what can be done with it, social and cultural factors are likely to be predominant in how and why new technology is used.

If tools help to shape how they are going to be used, social and cultural factors are also extremely important in determining how and why new technologies are used.

Discussion of the Information Society consistently avoids the basic question as to whether or not such a change is necessary or desirable. Like many others, we too have the impression that the advent of the so-called Information Society is ineluctable. Is it really the case? Perhaps one should be wary of apparently unavoidable solutions to problems.

In a rapidly changing context, it is advisable to frequently return to basic questions such as: "Are we really on the right road?"

While one can agree with many of the aims put forward by the Green Paper, there is no guarantee that the outcome will correspond to those goals. Take life-long learning, for example. The idea that learning should brake free from its current dependence on institutions and re-discover its place in the life of each one of us seems highly desirable. But current developments in telematics for life-long learning, despite talk of interactivity, are heavily consumer oriented and are likely to provide ready-to-consume "learning-packages" not really conducive to learner empowerment. It doesn't need to be that way. One can effectively imagine exciting possibilities of personal and collective "growth" via enriched exchange with others. But technology alone will not suffice to get us there.

The empowerment of the individual - in particular as far as learning is concerned - requires an investment on the part of the individual. Learning based on consumerism is contrary to such an ideal.

The Green Paper embraces whole-heartedly the concept of the virtual corporation. The idea of a responsive, responsible, learning-company that puts the customer first and that empowers its employees is attractive. But is there really a trend in that direction or is it just wishful thinking? And, should there be such a trend, how are we to come to terms with the fact that the virtual corporation model puts a high percentage of its workers in varying degrees of precariousness?

To protect the interests of individuals the Paper talks of defining "basic principals related to fundamental social rights". This is a good idea, but isn't it also time to think in terms of responsibilities? Shouldn't we be talking of a new social contract, involving individuals, companies and administrations? It certainly would be a very constructive step forward - as the Paper suggests - to come to an agreement on a number of "common Community principles for the development of the Information Society", but such principles should go beyond the current blank cheque given to business and industry.

We need to go beyond the idea of rights and include the idea of concomitant responsibilities and draw up a new social contract for the "Information Society".

In addressing the definition of necessary basic skills, the Green Paper sees essential skill development in the field of machine/user interface - which it calls "informacy". This is no doubt partly the case. Yet, if the Information Society is to be widely adopted, there will also be an overwhelming need for skills related to exchange and collaboration between people. One suspects that the authors see the Information Society essentially in terms of one-way consumption. This is confirmed elsewhere in the document where the improvement of the quality of life is equated with the generation of new types of consumer and public services.

On-line person-to-person exchange and collaboration will be important aspects of the Information Society and should not be neglected in the drive to develop skills.

At the same time, there are basic skills related to the emergence of the Information society but which are not connected with the technology. For example, there is, according to us, a vital need to counter balance the growing trend to globalisation and virtualisation in communication by the reinforcement of the local community on a face-to-face basis. Skills will be required in dialogue, collaboration and solidarity, as well as an improved ability to express oneself both orally and in writing.

Face-to-face exchange, collaboration and solidarity within the local community should be reinforced to counter balance the globalisation and virtualisation of on-line communication.

The Green Paper, quoting the High Level Expert Group (HLEG) Report, mentions that the Information Society will help "re-invigorate whole communities and lead to stronger social networks and a sense of place". Such a change is no doubt necessary and desirable. It raises, however, the fundamental question as to whether such changes will take place spontaneously, or whether they require intervention and by whom? It may prove impossible to force such a change to happen.

To what extent can changes on a social and cultural level - perceived as necessary by experts and decision-makers - be made to come about by centralised or other intervention in a society in which the freedom of the individual is considered sacred?

One of the underlying assumptions of the Green Paper - reflecting a paradigm common within the Commission and other administrative bodies - is that pertinent knowledge is to be had (exclusively) from experts and that when it comes to consulting end-users, "representative bodies" are the best channel. Historically this approach is understandable, but the situation has changed. On the one hand, the relative decline of representative bodies casts serious doubts on their representativeness. On the other hand, the ever-growing gap between expert knowledge and those supposed to live and work by it must be considered a serious handicap by those who advocate the rapid growth and development of the Information Society. If the Information Society is to be built on the understanding and commitment of its users - and we suggest this is the only way it can be built - ways have to be found to take advantage of the experience and tacit know-how of the non-expert citizen and help to bridge the gap between experts and non-experts and between citizens and decision-makers.

It is necessary to enhance the experience and know-how of non-expert citizens and to bridge the gap between this knowledge and that of experts.

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ISSN: 1664-834X Copyright © , Alan McCluskey, info@connected.org
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Created: August 15th, 1996 - Last up-dated: August 15th, 1996