This evening I spoke at panel debate organised by DCLG Local Digital Campaign. This is my five minute pitch against the motion: Digital is the silver bullet that will deliver the Care Act Requirements:
Tonight ladies and gentleman, I suggest to you, that rather than a silver bullet – if we’re not careful digital might actually turn out to be the red herring of the Care Act.
In the next five minutes I will make the case against technological determinism and I will make the case for a sharpening of our critical faculties when considering the role of digital in our lives – a case for digital circumspection – people first, tech second.
So what’s our vision of a digital future? We conquer obesity, depression, global warming? We have engaged digital citizens? Crime is wiped out by smart streets? We recycle with smart bins. Throughout the ages we’ve always dreamed technology would solve world problems – in reality if it solves one then if often creates at least one other.
Now I’d like to tell you a story based on my daughter’s best friend. She lives on a council estate with four younger siblings. Her refugee mum stays at home and looks after the children. Her dad works in a factory on minimum wage. They don’t have a car. They shop at Londis because it’s at the end of their street. The local take away is where they go for a treat. I reckon the nearest shop selling fresh fruit and veg is at least an hour round trip on foot with the kids in tow and no easy bus routes.
Imagine her mum develops diabetes, depression, or even both. Digital could be an enabler – internet shopping or food sharing social networks. Or digital could be a red herring – a wearable device to measure her daily activity.
Her problem is a social one – based on poverty and proximity of affordable fresh food – not her daily step count. Reaching for the digital silver bullet fetishes tech and is in danger of leading us to the wrong solution. Even worse, it might render invisible the very real social problems that this mum faces.
Morozov* calls this reductionist approach ‘solutionsim’ which he defines as ‘an unhealthy preoccupation with sexy, monumental and narrow minded solutions that seduce us into thinking that we can easily resolve complex and contentious social issues’.
Digital exists in a social, political and cultural context. We need to be circumspect about promises of cheap quick fixes. We need leadership that focuses on people first, tech second.
When I last went to Clarks to buy my children’s shoes the shop assistant produced an iPad app to measure their feet. The children were beyond excited but it took half an hour of technical blips for it to work. I couldn’t help but wonder what this added beyond novelty and wasn’t the traditional technology far superior? A gadget looking for a problem to solve? Now this is fine if it gives novelty value to Clark’s customers. But what about when this logic is applied to important social problems? And there are tens of thousands of health and wellbeing apps out there and lots of companies trying to monetise them.
My last point about digital is one of commodification. If digital is a silver bullet, then it is at the largess of Silicon Valley. When we use digital tools or social networking sites, as goodness knows I do, we treat them a bit like public services. But our transactions do not equate to paying our taxes for clean roads or bin collections. It is easy to forget we are in commercial spaces. We are the product. Our data is the product. We are being commodified. We are engaging in commercial transactions we don’t really understand and which are deliberately obfuscated. And there is market failure –some of the top user rated digital tools have the poorest evidence of efficacy.
So my plea to you this evening, ladies and gentleman, is to embrace the affordances of digital, but to do so with your critical faculties’ in-tact. Make digital circumspection your mantra. Engage with technology mindfully and intelligently and make sure it solves the right problems rather than masking them. Make digital an enabler. Don’t be fooled into thinking it (or anything else for that matter) is a silver bullet.
*Evgeny Morozov To Save Everything Click Here (Allen Lane, 2013)