From Inclusive Spaces to Inclusionary Texts: How E-Participation Can Help Overcome Social Exclusion

From Inclusive Spaces to Inclusionary Texts: How E-Participation Can Help Overcome Social Exclusion

Simon Smith (University of Leeds, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-699-0.ch029
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This account explores the use of ICT to overcome social exclusion by means of eParticipation initiatives in two spheres-health promotion and local democratic participation. They offer a contrast in terms of how we think about inclusion because the intended outcomes of their e-enablement may differ. Their construction as private or public goods affects the scope for intermediaries to act as agents of digital inclusion. In eHealth, digital inclusion is often a recruitment issue, since online discussion serves as a meeting-place where people provide mutual support to others who are co-present, whereas in local eDemocracy, inclusion is a representation issue, since online discussion is a narrative, reflecting on the political life of a territorial community. As a textual Internet is more amenable to intermediation than a spatial Internet, the possibilities for deploying ICT for social inclusion were enhanced when members of the eHealth virtual community began to ‘publicise’ the discursive goods they produced, which became translatable into community health benefits via intermediation and channel integration.
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It is often stated that digital inclusion or eInclusion is, or is becoming, a prerequisite for social inclusion. For example, Castells wrote that in the network society “to be switched off is to be sentenced to marginality” (2001, p.277). The Digital Inclusion Panel set up by the Office of the e-Envoy in the UK reported that “As digital communications and transactions become commonplace in many areas of daily life, people who are digitally engaged will more likely be socially engaged, and vice versa.” (Office of the e-Envoy, 2004, p.34) Although there is little or no longitudinal research to demonstrate a causal relationship between digital and social inclusion (Helsper, 2008, p.17), similar assumptions are frequently internalised by users and non-users of the Internet alike, in terms of a general sense that not 'having' the Internet means 'being left out' or 'missing out'. On the other hand they are implicitly challenged by the attitudes of other non-users, particularly those who have 'dropped out' of Internet usage not on cost grounds but stating 'lack of interest' or 'no need' to use information and communication technologies (ICT) and the Internet (Lenhart et al, 2003). Some people, that is to say, have tried the Internet, and their subjective experience is that without it they are not 'missing out' on anything of great significance to their lives.

The argument in this chapter questions the logic of a simple equation between digital exclusion and social exclusion, pointing to the need to qualify what it means to be 'switched on', 'wired up' or 'digitally engaged' in the information society. We need to remember that these are socio-technical rather than merely technological concepts, and we also need to examine critically the nature of the intended benefits of ICT use. Firstly, if we are concerned with “benefits realisation” rather than access and use, intermediation becomes a possibility for reaching the 'digitally unengaged', as recognised by the Digital Inclusion Panel (Office of the e-Envoy, 2004, pp.28,41). Secondly, people use ICT in a variety of settings, which act as 'translation landscapes' where offline and online channels intersect, so whatever information or communication processes are occurring via the Internet tend to spill over into physical settings and may be transmitted to other actors via face-to-face communication and other analogue media. The possibilities for such channel integration become more apparent when we imagine the Internet not as space but as text: whereas we commonly regard our experiences in places as unique and non-transferrable, texts are translatable and relayable. Thirdly, considering participative uses of ICT, technology offers new possibilities for producing and distributing all sorts of goods and values, and the network geometries for the distribution and consumption of different goods are not the same. In particular, when ICT is deployed to produce public goods, the consumers or beneficiaries may not need to be connected either to the Internet or to the participative process through which the public good was produced.

The aim of this chapter is to explore how these variables affect the way we might understand social inclusion when eParticipation is performed for different purposes, in different locations and in different domains. Specifically, it attempts to draw out both the differences and the commonalities between manifestations of the digital divide in the spheres of health promotion and local democracy.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Channel Integration: the establishment of connections between different channels for social and political participation, such as Internet-connected PCs, mobile devices, digital TV and face-to-face communication. Here the term is used principally to denote the integration of online and offline channels.

eParticipation: participation using ICT, either as the only channel or alongside non-ICT channels. In this chapter the term refers to social as well as political participation.

Public Goods: goods which are non-excludable and non-rivalrous. They can be thought of as goods which are consumed at a society- or community-wide scale in the sense that they are not open to exclusive appropriation by individuals or sub-groups. Publicness often depends as much on context as on the innate character of the goods.

Social Inclusion: bringing in’ disadvantaged groups to major social institutions for the materialisation of citizenship rights, with the goal of improving both the quality of life of individuals and the equity and cohesion of society. Definitions of social inclusion commonly include concepts like respect, diversity, shared goals and meanings and a feeling of belonging to a community.

Digital Inclusion (referred to as eInclusion in EU documents): the deployment of information and communications technologies to further social inclusion.

Intermediary: an individual (or organisation) who assumes the role of an assistant or proxy, using ICT with or on behalf of another individual or group. This can include acting as an advocate for individual or group interests in an online process.

Health Discussion Forums: forums that serve as online self-help groups, usually for people with a particular health condition, where mutual support is exchanged among peers.

Local Issues Discussion Forums: online spaces that attempt to recreate an interactive public sphere for citizens and their representatives, and to sustain a permanent, deliberative debate that invigorates local democracy from the bottom up.

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