Inclusion in the Network Society: the role of telecentres

The Xarxa Òmnia is the largest network of telecentres in Catalonia and one of the largest in whole Spain. The network was set up in 1999 and, since its conception, it has always had a strong community-focused aim which made of their telecentres — or Punt Òmnia [Òmnia Point] — more than just public Internet access points, but more tools of (e-)inclusion and community building.

Now that Xarxa Òmnia has turned 10 years old, the yearly rendez-vous of the whole network, the Jornada Òmnia, will focus on how should the network evolve in the coming years, taking into special account the changes that have been happening in the last 10 years in matters of the Information and the Network Society, and what are the challenges that policy makers and telecentre administrators will have to face to successfully fight the digital divide and the risks of (e-)exclusion.

I have been invited to introduce both these aspects. And my point has been already been made in the way that I write (e-)inclusion and (e-)exclusion: in my opinion, e-inclusion or e-exclusion will increasingly be a matter of inclusion/exclusion rather than being centre on the “e-“. Obvious as this might sound (i.e. inclusion being a matter of inclusion), the devil is in the details:

  • Real impact of ICTs will come — I believe — by them enabling, enhancing and empowering the analogue part of our lives: e-inclusion should be about ICTs finding ways to help people be part of a community, not about pouring people in the Internet (the “e-” focus of e-inclusion), notwithstanding a recurrent strategy in many Information Society policies;
  • People not online are, increasingly, people actively refusing to be online. While it is still true that many people don’t go online because of impossibility to access the Internet (hardware, connectivity, affordability, skills, etc.), we also find people that being able to access it, just don’t want to or even walk out of it. Lack of awareness, belief that ICTs bring nothing good to their lives, technophobia, etc. are keeping them disconnected and in risk not of e-exclusion but exclusion at all.

Thus, here’s my presentation:

Go to original site to see the slides: http://ictlogy.net/?p=2997

The main points and rationale of my presentation are:

  • The Digital Revolution puts at stake the economy of scarcity (at least at the information and knowledge levels), brings down transaction costs and introduces a new actor into the equation: machines that substitute brain work (as other machines substituted muscle work in the Industrial Revolution)
  • The effect of these three aspects, puts at stake institutions? Do schools, firms, governments, the media or civic organizations still have a role in mediating between citizens? Or will citizens bypass them? What if they do? What if citizens themselves are bypassed by their peers?
  • If hierarchies and institutions give way to — or are deeply transformed by — networks, inclusion will be a matter of staying connected and being able to re-program oneself to be kept within the network.
  • New (digital) competences will be crucial for that, from technological literacy to e-awareness.
  • Thus, we might be needing to reframe our policies and foster pull strategies instead of pull strategies; we might also reconsider the role of our (e-)inclusion tools (telecentres amongst them), that might need shifting from the “e-” to the “inclusion”, strongly focussing on community building, enhanced by technologies.

This presentation is a wonderful occasion for me to gather up things I’ve been working on and thinking about in the last two years. In some way, it collects the reflections I already made in the following speeches (in chronological order):

I want to thank Cesk Gasulla, Noemí Espinosa, Marta Jové, Sònia Castro, Dolors Pedrós and the rest of the organizing committee for the invitation and the valuable chance to organize my reflections and think aloud in public. Moltes gràcies!

Pekka Himanen: The Hacker Ethic: The Way Forward after the Current Global Economic Crisis

Notes from Pekka Himanen’s conference The Hacker Ethic: The Way Forward after the Current Global Economic Crisis held at the Open University of Catalonia/Internet Interdisciplinary Institute, Barcelona (Spain), on November 2nd, 2009.

Manuel Castells: Introduction

The hacker ethic is the cultural factor that emerges from the Network Society. If the Network Society is a new social paradigm, the hacker ethic is the culture that results from all the changes that conform the Network Society.

Pekka Himanen: The Hacker Ethic: The Way Forward after the Current Global Economic Crisis

An emphasis to be made is that the hacker ethic is not only about computer scientists, or about geeks and nerds, but it is a wider cultural transformation in the sense of the number and kind of people that might fit the definition. The hacker ethic can effectively be taken out of the technological sphere.

So, in context, if this is a Network Society and this is its culture, what is the role of hacker ethic in today’s economy and today’s crisis? Beyond economic development we need a broader sense of development. And it is likely that this new ethic can be part of the solution, of this broader sense of development.

Fundamental challenges nowadays:

  • Clean: Climate change, being radical innovation the way to go forward;
  • Care: Welfare society 2.0, as inequality increases and more people are unattended;
  • Culture: Multicultural life, how to cope with the increasing cultural crossroads that globalization is creating.

How can innovation turn challenges into opportunities? How can hacker ethic help in creating innovation-based solutions? Hackers can help to discover cleaner energy sources, biohackers will eventually help in creating a healthier society (being DNA the open source of life), cultural hackers can help in creating new and more meanings in multicultural life.

The problem is that the world economic, innovation and scientific centres are not evenly distributed across the world, but mainly concentrated in the US, Europe and some Asian countries. Why are these so much concentrated?

Innovation centre dynamics, or what do you need to have an innovation centre:

  • Culture of creativity: hacker ethic
  • Community of enrichment, where failing is accepted, where entrepreneurship is fostered, where ideas are economically supported (funded)
  • Creative people

Face-to-face communication — added to virtual communication and knowledge exchange — is what creates this climate or environment of innovation. This is what we find in Silicon Valley around Stanford University, or in other innovation centres around the world.

Increasingly, creative, innovative, knowledge intensive jobs are any more at the edges of the economic system, but at their sheer centre. Thus, it is important to know how to enable and foster the creation of such centres, as they are likely to be the solutions — or the solutions providers — for the crisis and for future development.

Ancient Athens went through an important era of huge investments that concentrated a lot of creative activities driven by Plato, Socrates, Pericles, etc. The Agora and surrounding buildings was an infrastructure for communication and interaction that brought together people from different backgrounds. Just like Silicon Valley and Stanford University.

Hacker’s ethic: creativity, that relies on a community of enrichment, that relies on mutual confidence. In this three layer structure, you both (a) feel like part of a big, powerful community and (b) are actually acknowledged as a person (not as a number). And it is a self-feeding logic.

Debate

Ismael Peña-López: how do you change mindsets? how do you transform a short-run profit system into a meritocratic, hacker system? Himanen: the most important thing to do is to change education. On the other hand, there are plenty of good examples of applied hacker ethic; there are also good ideas that get funding for addressing the more urgent challenges, and maybe what’s changed is that, instead of having a project, or a business plan, is having a mission.
Castells: it is not about being good or bad, but clever or stupid. All major innovations come from communities and just rarely from individuals or even small teams. All major advances are based on smart collaboration.

Enric Senabre: What’s the acceptance of the hacker in public opinion? Himanen: hackers are not computer criminals; and hackers are not computer nerds. It is about a real ethos. It’s an informational work ethic, a creative ethic.
Castells: The good thing about the term “hacker ethic” is that it challenges many prejudices and ex-ante thoughts at the same time.

Daniel López: How to move forward the concept of “hacker”? What about “craftmanship”? Himanen: Of course, hacker has something to do with craftmanship. But the term hacker is also a self-adopted term by hackers themselves, which makes it special.

Q: Do you consider yourself a hacker, or feel like one? Himanen: yes, it is all about passion, a creative passion, and the way of doing things almost obsessively, though a pleasant obsession.

Q: Is hacker ethic spreading? Is there more people becoming hackers? Himanen: There is some evidence that in two years there’ll be work shortage, as many people will retire. And people will be able to chose their works and do it on a mission-basis or on an environment-basis, more than just wage or other similar conditions.

Ricard Ruiz de Querol: Is the actual crisis a financial crisis? If so, what’s the feeling like in hackers environments about it? Himanen: hacker ethic is a neutral term, it just describes the relationship with work. And it is independent from social values. Notwithstanding, it is difficult that lack of specific social values (e.g. a better world) is compatible with hacker ethic. What, then, would your creativity serve?

Anna Soliguer: How can hacker ethic inspire social movements? Himanen: In some sense, Obama followed a hacker ethic. The thing is how to link participation in social movements with leadership.

Q: Is there any particular reason why hacker ethic is stronger in welfare states (e.g. in Scandinavia)? Are people from the Pirate Bay hackers? Do they pursue a better world? Himanen: Finland, for instance, is a place where, in general, there is this creative environment that is so strongly needed for hacker ethic to emerge (e.g. it took Linus Torvalds 8 years to finish his Masters’ thesis and nobody made an issue about it). On the other hand, if you have some basic needs covered (by a welfare state) you’re not that urged to make profit out of your ideas or personal time.
Castells: most hackers come originally from the US, where not welfare but the idea of freedom is what predominates. The idea being that you can have different economic systems that lead to hackerism, but what is necessary is the aim to create and a system that allows this creation. On the contrary, continental Europe, traditionally the craddle of the welfare state, has not a huge community of hackers.

Ismael Peña-López: Reality has change so much from the origins of the hacker ethic in the late 60s and the early 70s. Will the hacker ethic fade out and disappear? What, then, will happen with the Network Society? Himanen: political involvement is only partly true. People where not that involved in politics but in social rights movements, and, on the other hand, people still are involved, though in different ways: people are not interested in political hierarchies, but other ways of engagement. Indeed, people are increasingly engaged, though in newer ways.
Castells: hacker ethic is not a cause of the Network Society, but a consequence. Hence, the whole world is entirely inside the Network Society and there is no way back. On the other hand, the creativeness of the hacker ethic had to cut through the system during the late 60s and early 70s, to fight against bureaucracies. Nowadays, on the contrary, it is the corporate world who is adopting hacker ethics (e.g. Google), and most big companies are increasingly relying on the passion to create, even Microsoft is doing this. If we forget about the label “hacker”, we will find plenty of examples of “creativity” and “innovation”, which is at the core of hacker ethic.

Begoña Gros: at our schools, we are promoting neither creativity nor passion. What’s it like in Finland? Himanen: curiosity is fostered in Finland. When you’re passionate about one thing, you begin putting questions about that, and this is something that the Finnish educational system is comfortable with. On the other hand, you’re invited to find what you want to do in life, to find a meaning, before going on (e.g. to the job market). The good thing about Linus Torvalds is not only his talent, but the ability to develop things, to help things become important not only for you but for others. This means, notwithstanding, that we have to go on encouraging creativity and innovation at school, so to make a hacker ethic possible amongst students.

Three approaches of ICTs in development and an alert on leapfrogging

In his latest post — Good Practice in ICT4D Research — Richard Heeks raises the issue on how ICTs can directly contribute to economic growth and poverty alleviation.

The topic also appeared during the Specialized Areas Workshop held at the Fourth Annual IPID ICT4D Postgraduate Symposium which Åke Grönlund conducted. There, the “what poor people need is money” motto constantly came in and out of the conversation.

Being an economist myself, I can only agree with Richard Heeks on his advice to focus on money — economic growth, income, economic sustainability, productivity, competitiveness — when dealing about the role of ICTs in an economy.

But poverty has many causes and consequences. And I personally think that addressing the economic part of poverty is addressing only the material part of poverty, that is, poverty itself: lack of income, inequality, etc. But ICT4D should also focus in the part of the non-material causes, sometimes called the context. Indeed, Heeks somehow points at it too when he writes of the need to speak to development.

In addition to that, there is a third course of action: to change the whole system, the whole landscape, the rules of the game. This is what (some) leapfroggers mean to do: change their whole (or a good part of it) economic system and take the chance of ICTs to base that change on, using ICTs as a locomotive to pull the rest of the economy upwards.

Following an idea I already developed in Fostering the Information Society for Development in the Web 2.0 framework, and partially based on Welzel et al.’s The theory of human development: A cross-cultural analysis, I think that these three approaches of ICT4D could be schematically put this way:

ICTs and Human Development — a material resources based approach

This would relate to the pure Economics point of view, and would deal with what resources people have at hand — the classical capital, labour, human capital… maybe even land — and how these resources can be altered or improved by means of ICTs — productivity, multifactor productivity, competitiveness, efficiency, efficacy —.

On the other side of the telescope, ICTs and Economics should also deal with the final impact of the transformation of these inputs by means of ICTs: income, wealth, economic growth.

ICTs and Human Development — a values and rights based approach

Besides resources, or besides the objective choice, a more “human” approach is possible taking into account subjective and effective choice. It is the realm of values and rights, which quite often are enablers, multipliers or barriers to development. I am convinced that there are three main fields that should be prioritized in any development approach, with or without ICTs:

  • Health (which includes Nutrition and Housing, of course), as the basic endowment of personal resources — yes, it is closely linked to the previous approach, but it determines many other things like self-confidence, personal welfare, etc. which are not related to Economics.
  • Education, as the main empowerer — again, related with human capital, but here dealt more with feelings and one’s place in the World, one’s ability to lead one’s own development, to take decisions, to riase self-awareness (and e-awareness)
  • Governance, as the generic framework where everything else — Economics and Human Development — happens or just does not happen.
ICTs and leapfrogging development — a disruptive or economic locomotive based approach

Though also related with the economicist approach, what leapfrogging pretends is to (a) circumvent the long path of development by skipping some of its phases and, by doing so, (b) transforming the focus and structure of the whole (national) economy.

It is, in part, what steal, the steam engine, railroads, the automotive industry, etc. did in England first, and then in other places of the world, during the Industrial Revolution. It is about changing the system, not changing within the system.

What role for leapfrogging?

While I see the role of ICTs and Economic Growth and ICTs and Human Development pretty clear, I am not that sure about the third approach: leapfrogging.

On the one hand, my own data show that there might be, in general, a single path towards digital development. This is neither imperialism nor patronising: this is evidence. The reason being that, despite the fact that there might be other developing paths, the world economy is global, interconnected and, for good or for bad, with a strong set of economic rules already defined for everyone. And if you are in this world — which you are — these rules are, like it or not, affecting you.

On the other hand, I am afraid that ICTs might be having the same treatment in some lower income countries that monoculture had in most Latin American and Caribbean countries or that oil has in most Middle East countries: export economies highly depending on international trade and its volatile prices, and with relatively small impact on domestic economies at large (that is, leaving aside plutocracies and corrupt governments).

It would be sad to realize that, after impressive efforts to adopt ICTs in lower income countries to leapfrog development, we ended up having an elite controlling an international trade-focused ICT Sector, whose only interest is to pay low wages to carry out the offshored, low profile, low added value services that rich countries do not want to do. It might be good in the short run — jobs, currency entries, more money for domestic consumption — but, as History has shown, it might but reproduce the rich/poor system in the long run.