The BBC Panorama programme came out with the stunning revelation that social media platforms are deliberately designed to be addictive, and that they are always looking for new ways of making us all even more hooked.
I have to confess I wasn’t overly shocked.
I would have been more so if they weren’t using every trick in the book to increase our reliance on all those little endorphin-producing pixels. It’s interesting to note that, “If you’re not paying for it then you are the product,” while being unquestioningly applicable to our digital lives today, was first coined in 1973 in relation to TV advertising. Video artists, Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman, produced a short film where they said, “It is the consumer who is consumed. You are the product of TV.” How do I know this? That nice Professor Google told me, of course.
Last year, UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) produced a report entitled, Children in a Digital World, in which it explored the access and experience of young people to modern communications technology around the globe. It uncovered some stark statistics. Almost a third of the world’s children (346 million of them) are not online. Around 60% of African youth are not “connected” compared with just 4% in Europe. And, there is a gender divide as well. Globally, 12% more men than women used the internet in 2017. In India, less than one third of internet users are female.
The supersonic pace of change we’re currently experiencing is dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It’s hard enough to keep up if you’re in the middle of the tech industry but for those people on the wrong side of the digital divide as described by UNICEF, the risks of being left entirely behind are great. If there’s one thing the previous three iterations of such traumatic change have taught us, it is the importance of ensuring hard to reach groups are not allowed to miss out. Beyond even the importance of the fairness of it all, great swathes of humanity cannot be allowed to fail the digital test for fear of the massive unrest or even war or revolution such disparity could cause. It is in all our interests, in fact it is imperative that we make sure Indian women, young Africans, people living in rural areas etc., are not disadvantaged in this way. To allow them to fall behind will be potentially disastrous for global economy and society.
In the UK, Government recognition of the importance of digital education for everyone is clear. Last year’s Industrial Strategy policy document is full of references to the nation’s digital needs along with commitments totalling more than half a billion pounds to improving our position (already one of the best in the EU in terms of digital knowledge and awareness). We are one of surprisingly few countries to have a Digital Inclusion Strategy aimed at ensuring different groups are not left behind.
At Milton Keynes College we’ve recently collaborated with Microsoft, Leicester University and JISC (the not-for-profit organisation which supports education in the digital world). Together, we’ve come up with a bronze, silver and gold scheme to enable people to access the best quality online help and training. It’s all very well wanting the students to know what they’re doing but how can we expect that if their teachers don’t?
We’re also waiting to hear if Government funding is going to be forthcoming for the Institute of Digital Technology at Bletchley Park – a potentially transformational project which we hope will see thousands of people receiving the best possible digital education and training, tailor-made for the workplace.
It’s absolutely right for us to be concerned if social media companies are cunningly persuading us to inhale too deeply on their digital hookahs. However, it’s even more important to make sure that everyone everywhere has the opportunity to become addicts like us, for our sakes as much as theirs.