UK: Digital Inclusion And The Moral Obligations Towards Tech Education

by on July 6, 2009 at 3:15 pm

Traveling Geeks: Monday morning we met with Tristan Wilkinson, Intel’s director for public sector, EMEA Region. His main interest is how technology can be used to improve countries’ economies and improve the quality of life for people through work opportunities.

He posed an interesting question: Do the people that enjoy the benefits of the digital economy have an obligation to help those that don’t have the same access and skill sets?

The way the question is phrased doesn’t invite much debate because it shoots straight for the moral high ground.

Mr Wilkinson says he isn’t “selling anything” but he clearly is. As a representative of Intel, it is natural that he would be of the opinion that more technology and more people that know how to use the technology, the better for society and the earning power of individuals. And thus better for Intel as the dominant building block infrastructure provider.

There is a lot of truth to the view that people with technology skills will have better employment opportunities but will this always be true? Our experience constantly shows that as certain technology skills become more ubiquitous, their potential earning power diminishes proportionally. You constantly need to keep climbing up the value chain.

New technologies do provide new jobs as new types of businesses are created but they are also used to reduce the costs of operating a business and that means eliminating jobs.The overall effect over the long term, in my humble opinion, is that our use of new technologies will reduce the number of jobs, it is not a zero sum process. [Please see: The Internet Devalues Everything It Touches, Anything That Can Be Digitized.]

This all leads to a much more interesting question that we face in the not too distant future, which is not about who gets the new tech jobs.

I’d like to know what happens when, say only 20 per cent of our population needs to work in order to provide all the goods and services for 100 per cent of our society?

We constantly create new types of “divides,” our economy thrives on new systems of haves and have nots. At some point, because of the incredible productive capacities we are able to build and to manage as a result of our technologies, we won’t have to have everyone working to produce the goods and services we all need.

In such a scenario, a system of division becomes meaningless and useless — so how will we deal with that? How will we equitably divide up the spoils of our technological progress and prowess?

I strongly believe we have a moral obligation to begin discussing these types of questions before we have to deal with their inevitable arrival.

Distance learning.

Mr Wilkinson spoke about the importance of using technology to educate African children. He quoted statistics that show that an extra year of primary education among African children significantly improves the health of babies, and reduces AIDS infection rates. So yes, if we, the beneficiaries of the digital economy are able to improve the primary school education of African children then that is a good thing, and it is a moral obligation that we do so.

Fellow Traveling Geek Jeff Saperstein made a great point that removing trade restrictions between the European Community (EC) and African countries would do much more for the health and wealth of African children than using technology to improve education. Trade would lessen the need for aid. Trade is a sustainable form of development — charity is not.

We also discussed “Digital Inclusion,” which is a fancy term for digital divide. Mr Wilkinson said that we have moved beyond the simple issue of access and we need a more ambitious definition.

Robert Scoble said that he has little interest in digital divide issues, the issue for him is more of a “friend divide.” People without rich networks of “friends” will suffer because they will find it more difficult to find jobs, and gain access to people and knowledge.

Interestingly, Mr Wilkinson started off our meeting by saying he doesn’t get Twitter, he would rather be climbing trees with his kids. But by the end of the meeting, and because of constant cajoling from the Traveling Geeks, he registered on Twitter: you can find him @IntelTristan.

He also spoke about being an “immigrant” into the technology world and that it doesn’t come naturally to him, unlike for children, which have a natural digital literacy. I disagreed with this common view of digital literacy. I don’t see a generational divide when it comes to technology but only an experiential divide. If you don’t do it, you don’t know it.

The average age of the Traveling Geeks is probably somewhere in 40s, we are no spring chickens, yet we are in the forefront of using many emerging technologies. Anyone can do the same – regardless of age.

When Mr Wilkinson says he doesn’t feel comfortable using certain technologies that’s because he has chosen not to spend sufficient time with them — which is unusual for someone with his job in giving advice to government organizations. You can’t understand much about social media if you aren’t involved in it.

I will have some video of our discussion coming up later. If you’d like to find out what my fellow Traveling Geeks have to say about this meeting, and also further accounts of our trip during this week, please visit: Traveling Geeks where the posts are being aggregated. You can follow the Tweets with the hashtag #tg2009.