Old Town Dhaka


Finishing meetings early provided an ideal opportunity to experience something of the vibrancy, colour and energy of the old town of Dhaka by the riverside and the Ahsan Manzil Palace Museum.  Thanks so much to colleagues from Ericsson for their hospitality.  Mind you, this area should be avoided when students are sitting exams!  The crowded streets made progress very, very slow, but nevertheless gave me time to take lots of photos of rickshaws!

 

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Grameenphone hosted cultural dinner at CTO’s Annual Forum


One of the very real privileges of being Secretary General of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation is the opportunity that it has given me to visit so many different countries and people across the Commonwealth.  It is so important that we celebrate our cultural differences and richness, rather than trying to create a single uniform market across the world! The CTO’s Annual Forum is always an occasion when our host countries share something of their culture, usually in the form of dance and music.  Last night was a very special occasion.  Grameenphone, which started with the Village Phone programme to empower the rural women of Bangladesh in 1997, became the first operator to cover 99% of the country’s people with network, and is now  the leading and largest telecommunications service provider in Bangladesh with more than 48.68 million subscribers as of March 2014.  It was such an honour to meet with Vivek Sood, CEO of Grameen phone and his staff, and I hope that the imagery below captures something of the  excitement, beauty and energy of this wonderful evening. Thank you so much to all of the dancers and musicians who shared so much of their culture with us.

 

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Rapid tour of northern New Zealand wineries


Twelve hours between flights into and out of Auckland provided a great opportunity to explore some of New Zealand’s more northerly vineyards.  Despite only having a couple of hours sleep before arriving around 05.00, and with a forecast of rain and thunderstorms, I set off northwards in the dark and rain.  The only trouble was that most of the wineries did not open until around 11.00, and so I had a lot of time to explore the surrounding countryside – much like the Scottish borders, and so very wet!

However it was great at last to see the vineyards and wineries at Kumeu River, Nobilo and Vila Maria (all pictured below).  Fortunately, the sun came out amazingly for a few short minutes when I was at Kumeu River, and so I could actually get some pictures that had a bit of brightness and contrast in them!  Their Chardonnays have long been one of my favourite New Zealand wines, and they are some of the closest New World wines to traditional Burgundies.  Visiting on a very rainy day, though, emphasised the heavy clay soils on which the Kumeu River vineyards are cultivated, a marked contrast to some of limestone soils of Burgundy!  I will have to look into that and explore further.

Not sure I would necessarily recommend driving a couple of hundred kilometres between flights in the rain, especially since to keep on the safe side I did not even taste any of the wines!  It was privilege enough, though,  just to visit!

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Imagery of Samoa


Over the last few days participating at the UN Small Island Developing States conference in Samoa, I usually left my hotel before the sun was properly up, and have returned after dark. Having come all this way to the Pacific, I could not resist the temptation to go and explore something of the countryside this morning, and so decided to set off for a couple of hours walking along the south coast near the Sinelei Reef Resort. Below are some of the images I took to try to capture the experience.

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I have a kaleidoscope of reflections about Samoa and its people! They keep asking me what I think about my all-too-short time here, and so I also want to share some thoughts here.

It is amazing how much effort the government and people put into convening the conference. This is visible everywhere, from the bunting and painted coconuts along the roadsides in the villages, to the tremendous effort that has gone in to arranging transport for the delegates. This shows the enormous warmth and generosity of the Samoans.

I really appreciated learning from the government officials who accompanied delegates in the mini-buses and shuttles that took us to and from our accommodation. They went out of their way to be helpful and to provide deep insights into island life. Much of what follows reflects their voices. I have to say, though, that not all delegates treated them with the courtesy that I think they deserved!

Samoa seems to be a very gentle and peaceful island, and it has had remarkable political stability over recent years. In part, people say, this is down to culture, and especially the role of Christianity. I don’t think I have ever been somewhere where there are so many churches, often several of different denominations in a single village!

One of the most striking things is the open-sided houses that are to be seen everywhere in rural areas. At night, as I was regularly driven across the island, people were very visible just relaxing in their houses, many of which had bright white mosquito nets showing up very brightly in the electric light.

As for agriculture, the dominant crops were definitely coconuts, bananas and taro, which could be seen everywhere in the lower lying areas of the island. However, I was surprised to see so many cattle grazing, and somehow had not expected the very considerable number of horses that were to be seen! These were the main form of transport before cars were introduced, and many still remain, both as beasts of burden but also for riding for riding and racing.

The island, though, has very clear vegetation zones, and as one ascends the hilly centre, and then falls down to Apia in the north, these are very obvious, with the bananas and coconuts being replaced by a wide range of forest trees. It is also reflected in the weather. One night, there was torrential rain where I was staying, but it had been perfectly dry in the capital, Apia.

The coast itself is amazing, lined with coconuts and with beautiful beaches, stretching away for miles. My photos do not really do this justice! For those who want to get away from everything, and just relax, this would be an ideal place to do so. I can also thoroughly recommend my hotel, the Sinalei Reef Resort! It has a rustic, eco-friendly atmosphere, so very different from the modern luxury resorts to be found across many other Pacific islands. The staff were wonderfully friendly, and were always there to offer advice in the gentle Samoan way.

Samoa also seems to be much less influenced by US culture and style, when compared with other islands such as Fiji. This was wonderfully refreshing! However, other external influences are increasingly obvious, not least the Chinese, who helped to develop the impressive new hospital in Apia, are running many of the shops and small supermarkets, and are also constructing a new building complex in one of the villages through which I walked – apparently, I was told, a school.

I confess I did not know that Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island and Kidnapped was buried on the hill overlooking Apia. Next time I visit, I will have to take the long walk to the top to understood why this was his chosen spot!

My one sadness was that almost every child I met on my walk said to me at some point “Give me money”. This was not an aggressive begging, but it made me think back to the wise advice I was given by my dear friend Sudhir on my first visit to India. What, I think, saddened me most about this was the sense of dependency that was being created. The resonating “Give me money” came so often as I walked past buildings funded by donors such as UNDP and the EU, and it made me realise that all too often such aid, alongside the practice of many tourists who not doubt do give them money, is in some ways demeaning and creating even amongst the youngest islanders a dependent relationship that has to be damaging to their culture. I wanted to say to the children, “Give me your wisdom”, or “Let me learn from you”, but I did not have the linguistic skills to say this.

Overall, I am so grateful for the warmth, gentleness and genuine hospitality of all those Samoans who I met. I have tried to capture my fresh memories here, as a small gift to them, and to encourage others to journey across the oceans to experience something of the peace and beauty of the island. Tread gently, though, so that our presence may enhance rather than damage this wonderful island.

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Pacific Island Dancing: Lifeline Samoa


I had the unexpected pleasure of accidentally attending a dance performance by an amazing group of Samoans who were raising money this evening for Samoa Lifeline (Faataua Le Ol), which is  is the islands’ only non-government organisation dedicated to achieving a suicide free Samoa. Its main aim is to provide the people of Samoa with information, general and more specific help with any problems they may have that might lead them to be distressed enough to possibly consider suicide. It is a great initiative, and the dancers performed a range of dances reflecting those from different parts of the Pacific Islands, albeit largely in a modern idiom.  They were so good that I just want to share these images below:

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Prolegomena on Human Rights and Responsibilities


Waking early after yesterday’s flight to Port of Spain, and sitting above the Gulf of Paria, watching the swallows sweeping past my window, has given me time to reflect on something I have been meaning to write for ages.  I have long argued that both the notion of “Universal Human Rights”, and its acceptance as being a default position in much international discourse, has been hugely damaging for poor and marginalised peoples, and should be replaced by a Human Responsibilities agenda.  I first articulated elements of this argument in my 2010 paper on “ICTs, citizens, and the state: moral philosophy and development practices“, and also shared some thoughts on this at the Stockholm Internet Forum in 2013, but have never had the time to develop this into a more formal account (see also my pieces on balancing democracies and DFID’s approach to development aid).   Suffice it to say, that I still don’t have the time to do this in the detail it warrants, but I want to take the opportunity to share the outline of the argument here.  One day, I will craft the more formal account!

Caveats
Lest I am misunderstood, I want to begin by highlighting three important caveats that underlie what follows:

  1. In my earlier accounts, I argued strongly that we should disband the notion of Human Rights altogether. I now accept that making such an absolute and dogmatic approach is too antagonistic because the notion of Human Rights is too heavily embedded in global thinking and policy making.  Hence, my present position suggests that the Human Rights agenda needs to be balanced by a Human Responsibilities Agenda.
  2. Most of those who advocate a “responsibilities” approach to these matters do so from a neo-liberal or broadly “right-wing” stance; I very much want to distance myself from such a position, and instead see my arguments as being profoundly radical.  Indeed, as I hope to show below, I see the Human Rights approach being one that largely reinforces the status quo, in the interests of those in power.
  3. I also want to be very clear that I am not in any way suggesting that we should not put in place some kind of mechanisms to prevent the almost unimaginable horrors that have been, and continue to be, committed all too often across the world by some people on others.  As I write, the ongoing massacres of Yazidis and Christians by the so-called Islamic State/Caliphate are an all too shocking reminder of the continual savagery, and what some would decry as evil, that can be found across the world today.  However, I do not think that a Human Rights agenda actually prevents such atrocities; if it did, would they still be promulgated?

The fundamental premise
The fundamental premise that I seek to illustrate through the arguments that follow is that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights has supported the legitimacy of a particular kind of social formation, often called capitalism, that has a tendency to lead to greater inequality in the world rather than substantially improving the lives of the poorest, most marginalised and most vulnerable.  I argue, that this must be balanced by a Human Responsibilities agenda that places at least as much emphasis on the responsibilities of states and of individuals to the least advantaged in our societies.  It is insufficient simply to say they have rights; we all have responsibilities to act.

Strands in the argument
The various strands of my argument need fully qualifying, referencing, and linking together more cogently, but more or less in chronological order they are as follows:

  1. The idea that humans have rights is a relatively recent one in human evolution.  There is much debate about the origins of ideas associated with human rights, but I suggest that it is actually very recent.  Far too often, advocates of human rights agendas seek to identify obscure elements of past legal texts as the precursors of modern thinking on the subject, as with elements of the Cyrus cylinder dating from the 6th century BC (see for example United for Human Rights).  However, it is very difficult to sustain such arguments, and many are based on ex post facto reasoning.  One of the most interesting things about the human rights agenda is that most of the world’s religions have little if anything to say actually about human rights. For humanists, who reject the project of religions, human rights can be interpreted as part of human emancipation from the darkness of religion. However, for those who hold to the beliefs of religions such as Christianity and Islam, although they are very much concerned with what being human really means, and they challenge many of the perceived evils of the societies in which they were formed, there is actually remarkably little if anything in them about the precise idea of humans having rights.  Magna Carta, the great charter agreed between the Barons and King John in England in 1215, is often seen as providing the initial framework for the modern concept of human rights through its inclusion of the clause that “No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right”.  It was in the 17th century, though, in the writing of Hobbes and Locke that a more formal concept of human rights can be seen as having evolved in the context of the emergent Enlightenment and social contract theory.  The essence of their argument was that in seeking to resolve their conflicting desires for peace and power, people cede some of their rights to the sovereign in return for protection.  This notion lies at the heart of social contract theory that was developed further in the 18th century by authors such as Rousseau, and reached political fruition in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789.
  2. There is nothing universal about human rights. Point (1) above emphasises that the notion of human rights has evolved; it has not therefore been universally accepted throughout history.  A counter to this particular logic is, of course, the different logic that there has always been a universal, and it is only now becoming increasingly revealed and understood over time.  These two logics need resolution, but it is not only a matter of time and history.  Space and geography matter!  Different cultures have evolved different belief systems and ontologies, and there have been many contrasting arguments about universals.  Having long reflected on this, my overwhelming conclusion is that about the only widely accepted moral position is the Golden Rule of “do as you would be done by”.  I have always been challenged, for example, by the rights of cannibalism.  For a cannibal, it is her or his right to eat someone; for the person being eaten, it is clearly her or his right to remain alive. There are also clearly ongoing debates as to what should be included in human rights agendas, some of which are discussed further below, but the fact that there is little universal agreement across cultures on exactly what should be considered a human right is itself an illustration of the suggestion that there are few if any universals.
  3. Instead, human rights should be seen as a means through which a dominant ideology is imposed on others. To understand human rights, it is essential to understand where (the geography) and when (the history) of its emergence.  It is no coincidence that modern thinking on human rights emerged in 17th century Europe.  It did not emerge in Africa, Asia or the Americas.  It emerged hand in hand with the rise of individualism, in contrast with what was seen as the cloying hand of communal practices.  Enclosure provided the opportunity for individual profit from the land, instead of the traditional common and open field systems.  This was essential for the emergence of capitalism, vested fundamentally in private property rights, through which individuals could generate profit.  It was likewise no coincidence that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN in 1948 in the immediate aftermath of the 1939-45 war.  To be sure, it was in part a response to the horrors of the holocaust, but it must be asked, for example, why there was not the creation of a similar declaration after the very different kind of horror of the 1914-18 war?  It is also no coincidence that the drafting committee was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the US President.  Although its nine members did indeed include representatives from Chile, China, Lebanon and the USSR, the dominant voice was that of the capitalist “West”, represented by Australia, Canada, France, the UK and the USA.  The vast populations and cultures of Africa and South Asia were omitted and ignored.  The case I develop below is that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has thus become a vehicle through which global capitalism has sought to impose a universal hegemony on what is seen as being right. It is, though, not actually in the interests of the poor and marginalised, but rather serves the interests of the rich and powerful.  To develop a new world order, we must therefore abandon the declaration, and replace it with an agenda that stresses the importance of communal traditions.  Interestingly, such traditions are often seen to be grounded in many African practices, that were all too clearly ignored by the drafting committee.
  4. SkullsThe human rights agenda has failed to save those who have suffered at the hands of violent people who have no belief in human rights.  It may be that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has indeed reduced the amount of horror and violence meted out in the world over the last 66 years.  Unfortunately, though, we have no means of measuring this; there are no counterfactuals.  We take it on trust.  However, it is very clear that unimaginable violence – from Rwanda to Syria and Iraq – has continued, regardless of the declaration.  Let us never forget the horror and violence that men and women commit against each other, but let us ask whether the human rights approach is indeed the most powerful vehicle we can have to challenge this.
  5. The human rights agenda has become devalued and all-inclusive. One of the prime drivers for the Universal Declaration was undoubtedly the experiences of Allied troops who discovered the atrocities committed by Axis powers during and at the end of the 1939-45 war.  This found expression in Article 3: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”.  Yet, look at the hypocrisy even with the comment that “everyone has the right to life”: some states in Eleanor Roosevelt’s own country , the USA, still regularly take the lives of their citizens executed as the result of the passing of a death sentence, let alone taking the lives of innocent people killed elsewhere in the “war against terror”.  Even more important than this, though, is the point that far too many things that are much less important than “life” are now considered to be human rights.  Taken to the extreme, this has found expression in arguments that access to ICTs should be seen as a human right. Simplifying, this argument in essence is based on the logic that (1) education is a human right, (2) access to the Internet is crucial for education, and therefore (3) access to the internet is also a human right.  As I have argued elsewhere, it is arrant nonsense to argue in such a way, but to understand why this is happening one needs to understand the interests underlying such arguments, because they are indeed powerful.
  6. The interests underlying a human rights agenda.  Capitalism, especially as practised and promoted in the USA, is fundamentally driven by the need for people to be “free”.  It is this freedom as a right that lies at the heart of the human rights agenda.  It is not for nothing that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins with the statement that “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” (my emphasis).  In a Marxist interpretation, freedom is essential for two simple things that capitalism is reliant upon: the freedom of individuals to sell their labour power (the essential source through which profit is created for the capitalist), and the freedom of individuals to purchase products (the mechanism through which such profit is realised).  This was why it was so important for capitalism to overthrow “unfree” communism: so that a vast number of new labourers and consumers would be created, who were free to choose where and how they worked, and what they purchased.  Individual-ism had to replace communal-ism.  This was where the great con (even better and more subtle than that in The Sting) was played; it was largely done in the name of freedom.  To revert to the example of access to the Internet as being a human right, it can readily be seen that this argument is driven fundamentally by those who will benefit from the Internet being made available to everyone, be they corporations selling the technology, to educationalists eager to promote/sell their ideas through the Internet.  Yet how free are we?  Some may think they are free to search all human knowledge on the Internet, but in reality they are paying, and usually giving far more information away about themselves than actually they are gaining; that is the source of profit of the global search engine and social media corporations.  Are we not becoming mere appendages of the machines in front of which so many of us sit day in, day out, answering e-mails and losing our humanity?

Towards an alternative: communal solutions and a responsibilities approach
The forces of capitalism are indeed powerful, and even if they were not necessarily consciously embedded in the foundation of the Universal Declaration, they have since usurped it and now drive forward the human rights agenda primarily as a means through which they can generate further surplus profit at the expense of the poor and the marginalised.  Make something a human right, someone is then expected to provide it, and this then becomes a business opportunity.  The trouble is that actually all too often no-one provides it.

Masks[this was as far as I got in Trinidad; further reflections in the land of Serendib, and a most comfortable gentle flight home courtesy of Sri Lankan Airlines, enables me to continue]

Hence, I want to argue that at the very least we need to redress the balance by advocating for a human responsibilities agenda; deep down I would still prefer to have a responsibilites agenda replace the rights-based agenda, but as I note above too many people make too much money out of the rights agenda for this to be feasible in the short term.  Hence, I offer a compromise!

Elements in support of a radical responsibilities agenda go something like this:

  1. Human rights have failed; we need an alternative.  As noted in (4) above, the notion of human rights seems neither to have had a significant impact on improving the lives of the poorest of the poor, nor on those who suffer from states and people determined to mutilate and massacre them.  Over the last 20 years, the world has become more unequal, fuelled in part by the uses made of new Information and Communication Technologies; violence and hatred are rife, fuelled by individualistic human greed.  Human rights, despite all the claims made for it has simply not delivered.  I come close to thinking that all war and killing is a crime (despite arguments that claim that there is indeed something called a “Just War”), and that to define some incidents as being war crimes, whereas others are not is hugely problematic (but this enters a different, albeit fascinating discussion of war – perhaps the topic of a future blog post!).  The fundamental point here is that the fear of retribution by the international community has seem to have done nothing to limit the worst abuses conceivable by the minds of those dedicated to inflicting horror.  At least we must ask if there could just be an alternative.
  2. Shifting the emphasis to communal traditions.  As will be clear from the above, I see the root of much of the ‘problem’ of human rights as being its fundamental emphasis on the rights of individuals.  Do we as individuals really have rights?  What makes humans have rights, other than their claim that they do?  Might this not be false ideology based on the views of a rich and powerful minority?  In many cultures, the value of the community has traditionally been seen as being higher than that of the individual.  Indeed, the self sacrifice of many individuals to protect their communities, can be seen as reflecting the species survival, and thus essentially communal, nature of humanity.  In particular, although there is much dispute over it, traditions such as Ubuntu in eastern Africa, the Gacaca courts in Rwanda, and Indaba in Nguni cultures, all reflect an important African communal emphasis.  So too, I would argue, is the Christian tradition, drawing in part on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), but also the notion of Christ as a servant king (Luke 22), that places emphasis primarily on service.  Christ’s two fundamental requests (Mark 12) are that we should love God, and love others as ourselves.  There is nothing here about human rights, but rather an emphasis on our communal responsibilities. We have choices – to be individualistic and greedy, overly concerned with some presumed rights, or to serve others.  Indeed, in Hobbes’ and Locke’s original formulations, it was to try to resolve this conflict between greed and peace, that the notion of giving up certain assumed rights was born.  Perhaps if we placed greater emphasis on responsibilities, we might draw nearer to crafting a world which actually better helped achieve the objectives for which the human rights agenda has sought but failed to deliver.
  3. Responsibilities of states.  Simply to say that individuals have rights, and therefore that states have a duty to ensure that these rights are delivered on is not enough.  I assert that we must ensure that we embed in legislation the fundamental responsibilities of states to deliver certain things for their citizens, accepting that these might well differ between cultures and contexts.  The richness and diversity of humanity is one of our strengths, and we should not seek always to identify universals, which as I state above seem to me primarily to be ways through which the rich and powerful impose their view of the world on others.  The private sector’s unending pursuit of profit can never benefit the poorest and most marginalised; capitalism is built fundamentally on inequality.  Hence, the role of states is primarily to mediate these excesses, and ensure that the poor can also live at peace without fear for their lives and livelihoods (in line with 17th century social contract arguments).  It is only states that can achieve this. States therefore have fundamental responsibilities to their citizens, and if rulers fail to deliver on these they should be overthrown.
  4. And the responsibilities of individuals.  Not only are states made up of individuals, but it is as individuals that we communicate and interact with each other.  I can say to a person: “You have rights.  Jolly good.  The state will deliver on your rights. I need do nothing”.  Or, I can think, “I have a responsibility to that person.  I should therefore act in certain ways to them”.  Responsibility is about action; rights are about inaction.  The human rights agenda has been a way that we can be absolved of our responsibilities to each other.  I am seeking to reverse this so that we do indeed take action as individuals for each other.  It may only appear to be a subtle difference, but to me it requires an entirely different emphasis and way of thinking.  The responsibilities agenda means quite simply that states have responsibilities to their citizens, and as individuals we have responsibilities to each other.
  5. Who pays for human rights and responsibilities? I have long been challenged about the disconnect between human rights, and payment for delivery of those rights.  Many argue that “the right to education” is a human right, but that it is fine for this to be delivered by the private sector.  This seems to imply that someone might have a right to education, but that they would have to pay for it.  I find this logic unsatisfactory.  It is akin to saying you have a “right to life”, but you have to pay for it, which would seem to be a licence for highway robbers to take lives!  It seems to me that if you have to pay for a right it is not actually a right.  Poor people are highly likely to be disadvantaged, for example, in a society where health and education have to be paid for.  Again, this would seem to reinforce the arguments in (6) above, which suggest that some of the most powerful advocates of human rights are those who seek to exploit them for monetary gain.  This would certainly seem to be the case for those who want to make access to the Internet a human right!  If we replace such a logic, though, by one that says that states have responsibilities to ensure that all of their citizens have, for example, free housing, health and education, this would require societies to find ways to deliver on this, through mechanisms such as taxation.  Once again, the responsibilities agenda ia about the common good, rather than the individual greed and selfishness of the human rights agenda.

It is difficult to summarise complex arguments drawn from many sources in just a few lines, and this post is already overly long!  However, I would love to hear back from anyone who would like to point out the flaws in my outline argument, so that I can incorporate responses in my more formal, rigorous and detailed argument.  Who knows, it might evolve into one of my next books!

My  aim is to persuade people that we must balance any universal human rights agenda by a human responsibilities agenda.  This will require a radical rethink of all those reductionist arguments, especially by those in the UN system, that simply see human rights as the fundamental grounding for so much of their work.  I hope that, at the very least, my arguments here challenge such a supposition, and go some way to persuading others that the human rights agenda is part of a capitalist conspiracy that claims to make people free, but actually enslaves and dehumanises them.

 

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The damaging mythology of “Digital Natives”


The publication of Ofcom’s latest Communications Market Report, which provides interesting information about significant differences in usage of communications media, has led to a plethora of media commentaries perpetuating the mythology around the usage of the term “Digital Natives”.  A Guardian report  thus comments that “The advent of broadband in the year 2000 has created a generation of digital natives, the communication watchdog Ofcom says in its annual study of British consumers. Born in the new millennium, these children have never known the dark ages of dial up internet, and the youngest are learning how to operate smartphones or tablets before they are able to talk.”.

Ofcom summarised its report as follows: “Ofcom carries out research to help understand people’s awareness of technology and communications. Our research on people’s digital aptitude found that:

  • We’re at our most tech savvy between 14 – 15 years old – with an average score of 113
  • Over 60% of people aged over 55 score below average
  • Six-year-olds show the same confidence with technology as 45 year olds”

In this short post, I do three things: first, highlight the damaging effects that over-simplistic usage of terms such as “Digital Natives” can cause;  second, explore why such terms persist, and hence the notion of mythology; and third, point to  problems with the data upon which the Ofcom report’s conclusions are drawn.

Against the notion of “Digital Natives”
I had thought that the mythology surrounding “Digital Natives” had long been debunked, especially by the really excellent arguments propounded by my good friend Mark Weber, in his presentation on “Fear and Awe of the Digital Native“.  For anyone who has not read it, I strongly urge you to do so!  Rather than repeat all of Mark’s arguments, let me merely highlight four of the reasons why he suggests that it is a dangerous concept:

  • “Generational division simplifies picture
  • Assumes that ‘just because’ someone is young they have the necessary skill set to deal with modern economy
  • Presumes a level playing field for the young, ignores economic and social problems & differences
  • Places unwanted pressure on the young”

These are critical issues that must not be ignored, but I would like briefly here to develop four particular points that are in part alluded to by Mark:

  • Not everyone who is young is digitally literate, nor is everyone who is old digitally incompetent! Simply to categorise people in this way can be hugely damaging, not least to their self esteem.  If we wish to encourage older people to use technology, because of its assumed benefits to them, it is decidedly unhelpful to castigate them as being resistant to technology, or unable to learn about it.  Many older people are hugely competent at using digital technologies, and indeed teach younger people how to use them! Using Ofcom’s sample question test, for example, I scored more than 55% above the average score for people my age!!!
  • These differences are in large part structurally determined, rather than merely a factor of age.  Much more research needs to be done on reasons why people use digital technologies in particular ways, but there are very many structural reasons why people in particular age groups might respond to such surveys in particular ways (see below for problems with the actual questions asked in the Ofcom survey).  There are clear reasons why older people might not be as familiar with digital technologies as younger ones, not least because they may consider that they have better things to do with their time!  Moreover, not having access to the technologies, not being able to afford them, or their design being difficult to use can all affect such usage.  Elderly people with visual impairments or motility challenges find small digital devices difficult to use.  Most, although definitely not all, common digital technologies are not designed for use by people with disabilities, and similarly as people become older they too are often actually specifically marginalised by the technologies.
  • It implies that digital technologies are on the whole “good” and “beneficial”; we should all want to be natives! This again is part of the mythology surrounding “Digital Natives”.  However, as needs to be repeated over and over again, digital technologies have both positive and negative effects.  The word “native” is generally seen as being positive, and therefore it focuses attention mainly on the positive aspects of  the use of such technologies.  Sadly, the term “Digital Immigrants”, which is often used to refer to those older people learning how to use the technologies, has become associated with the more widely pejorative usage of the word “Immigrant”.  This is extremely unfortunate, because immigrants are actually often the people who bring in new ideas, and lead to changes for the better in a society! The notion that all digital technologies are definitely good must be debunked.  One need only think of the challenges of cybercrime, child online pornography, or the increased work load cause by e-mails to realise that being a “Digital Native” can actually be hugely damaging and dehumanising!
  • The notion of “Digital Natives” is a simple concept, that is easily remembered, but it is therefore highly dangerous because it implies some kind of causative power. There is nothing necessarily about young people that makes them any more adept at using digital technologies than older people.  The Ofcom report emphasises that, based on their survey, “Six-year-olds show the same confidence with technology as 45 year olds”, but this merely expresses confidence rather than ability.  If six-year-olds regularly play with digital technologies more than do older people, then it is hardly surprising that they have more confidence in their usage.  This does not mean that they are necessarily better at using the technology, or that older people cannot learn how to use it.  Persistence in the use of the term will only encourage older people to think that they are less able to use the technologies than they actually are, and might therefore further limit their potential benefit gains from digital technologies.  This is not to deny the considerable evidence that humans have greater difficulty remembering things, or learning new things as they get older, but it is to decry the arguments that suggest that there is something particularly about digital technologies that makes them harder than other new things for older people to learn.

Why do people still persist in using the term “Digital Native”?
The idea of students as “Digital Natives” and teachers as “Digital Immigrants” as first postulated by Mark Prensky in 2001 is indeed catchy, and it is not surprising that it became popular.  Like many popular concepts, it has an element of truth in it, and it appeals to those who like binary divides and simplicity.  Prensky’s paper concluded, “So if Digital Immigrant educators really want to reach Digital Natives – i.e. all their students – they will have to change. It’s high time for them to stop their grousing, and as the Nike motto of the Digital Native generation says, “Just do it!” They will succeed in the long run – and their successes will come that much sooner if their administrators support them”.  As founder and CEO of a game-based learning company, Prensky was  eager to encourage as many teachers as possible to adopt digital technologies in their learning, and this has been at the heart of the ‘interests’ that have subsequently underlain much use of the terminology.

Those who advocate the use of the term “Digital Natives” do so very specifically, so as to encourage even greater adoption of digital technologies, not only in the field of learning, but also more widely.  “Immigrants” are encouraged to adopt ever more technology so that they can become as proficient and ‘naturalised’ as are the “Digital Natives”.  Hence, a fundamental driver for use of this terminology is the profit motive of global ICT corporations, eager to ensure that as many people as possible are locked in to the new digital world that they are creating.

In the field of e-learning, a fear that teachers often have, especially in some of the poorer countries of the world, is that their role will be usurped by the machine, and that as “Digital Immigrants” they will be left behind by their students, the “Digital Natives”.  The traditional role of the teacher, as someone with knowledge to impart, rather than as someone helping others to learn, is thus seen as being fundamentally undermined by the use of digital technologies such as computers, the Internet and mobile ‘phones.  In such contexts, the use of an overly simple divide between Natives and Immigrants can be hugely damaging.  Instead, a more sophisticated approach to incorporating digital technologies in learning is required, recognising that it is a transformation for both teachers and students, and that only by working together can they develop a shared appreciation of the benefits that such technologies can bring.

Problems with research based on self-reporting
Interestingly, the Ofcom report itself does not actually use the words “Digital Natives”, but it does provide interesting information about how different age groups self-report on technology usage. Herein, though, lies a fundamental problem with the report, which is that the age-related conclusions are largely based on simple self-reporting questions that do not actually provide a reliable basis for the conclusions drawn.  As the sample questions indicate, the responses to one section require the person completing the questionnaire to give one of the following five answers to the question “Thinking about the following gadgets and services – which statement best describes your knowledge and understanding?”:

  • I use them
  • I know a lot about them, but I haven’t used them
  • I know a bit about them, but I haven’t used them
  • I’ve heard of them but don’t know much about them
  • I’ve never heard of them.

This relies on those responding to differentiate between “not much”, “a bit”, and “a lot”; one person’s “not much” could be another’s “a lot”.  Moreover, there is an inbuilt bias in such questions, because the same amount of knowledge abut technology is actually a much smaller percentage of an older person’s overall knowledge than it would be of a child’s knowledge.  This would tend to lead to younger people thinking that their digital knowledge about something was actually “a lot”, whereas an older person might see this as actually being “not much”!  The gadgets chosen are also somewhat problematic, including smart glasses such as Google Glass, smart watches, and 3D printers, not least because very few people actually use them as yet, and so the results will be biased to particular age groups that use them.

Another set of questions requires respondents to answer whether they “agree strongly”, “agree”, “disagree” or “disagree strongly” with a set of statements that include:

  • I like working out how to use different gadgets
  • My friend and family ask what I think about new gadgets
  • I know how to use lots of gadgets
  • I wouldn’t know what to do without technology

These questions are likely to be more comparable and reliable than the first batch discussed above, but similar challenges of interpretation can be found with most of them.  How, for example, does one quantify “lots of gadgets”? Moreover, agreeing strongly with the last of these would presumably lead to a high score, whereas only some reflection is required to suggest that it is actually deeply worrying for anyone to answer anything other than “strongly disagree”!

A further set of questions invites respondents to describe usage in terms of “regularly”, “sometimes”, “hardly ever” and “never” with respect to technologies such as online TV and text messaging:

  • I watch TV shows online (e.g. BBC iPlayer, 4OD)
  • I prefer to contact friends by text message than by phone call (e.g. by SMS, BBM, iMessage)

Again, these assume that all groups of respondents will differentiate between categories in the same way.  “Regularly”, for example, could be interpreted as “regularly, once a week”, whereas it would seem to be meant to mean very frequently!  Likewise, the difference between “sometimes” and “hardly ever” is not easy to define.

The Ofcom report has certainly provided interesting data about the use of communication technologies in Britain today, and it must be stressed once again it did not specifically use the words “Digital Natives”.  However, it must be emphasised that much of the data upon which it is based is somewhat problematic, and focused very much on perceptions rather than actually how people use technologies.  These are, though, clearly related, and there is no question that people from different backgrounds, cultures, ethnicity, gender and age all use devices in different ways.  The way on which journalists have picked up on the term “Digital Native” is, though, disappointing, and continues to promote what I see as a damaging mythology.  It is great to know I am not alone, and that today “The Herald” in Scotland also runs an article called “Myth of the digital native”!

 

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