Digital Public Space; CyberSalon

Digital Citizens; From Consumers to Creators

Background; Last night (March 23rd) Cybersalon, co-ordinated by Eva Pascoe, organised one of their public events in the House of Commons discussing Digital Citizenship. This was in response to being invited to comment on 3 new government policy documents relating to the developing and evolving digital world we increasingly live in. First of all The House of Lords Digital Skills Committee report Make or Break The UK’s Digital Future (pdf). Secondly the Speakers Commisson (John Bercow) on Digital Democracy and, as it turned out, most importantly for the debate the recent report on digital surveillance Privacy and Security: A modern and transparent legal framework (pdf) by the Intelligence and Security Committee.

Debate; Opened by Richard Barbrook stating that “We should collectively regulate the Internet in the common interest” and expanding on his recent blog post on Digital Citizenship as democratic emancipation, he pointed out that we should not just be looking at political and civil rights but also socio-economic rights. The debate then mostly concentrated on surveillance. Cybersalon were originally proposing three dimensions to the debate, Digital Rights, Digital Education and a Digital Commons (or Digital Public Space), as called for in their Open Letter, but digital rights and surveillance became the focus of the discussion. Tom Watson MP talked of the need for a coherent digital policy and of his own digital pledges. Carl Miller talked of his work on digital democracy and that we needed open policy making where surveillance was concerned, perhaps having public oversight of surveillance through “intelligence jurors.” Mark Cridge of the Green Party talked of critically differentiating between our digital rights as consumers and as citizens. BirgittⒶ Jónsdóttir talked of having clear core policy, Icelands Peoples Party started with the view that in formulating policy it was for “digital rights in a borderless world,” not just Iceland. Finally Smari McCarthy of MailPile, refreshingly talked of the need for a broader debate around what is citizenship, not just what is digital citizenship, and that we should start from “trusting citizens.” (Pic of Cybersalon panel below)fg-cs-DC1

Surveillance and the privatisation of Digital Space. The debate that followed the short introductory talks by the speakers was driven by concerns of overly-invasive surveillance by governments and collusion between large corporations and governments, perhaps best described as  the “aggressive privatisation of the digital commons.” In the main the discussion aligned with the phrase in the Open Letter; Today, we are being barred from full participation by abusive copyright law and monopolies in search, email, social media, storage, e-commerce, hosting, and other vital components.  This shared paranoia somewhat limited the debate and we didn’t move on to solutions like a Digital Public Space, a digital commons. As Bill Thompson puts it (in platform shifts) the ‘public’ internet now “is entirely privately controlled and … is a network where user surveillance is the dominant business model.”  A Digital Public Space would allow a public service model of digital use, aligned with the British Public Service broadcasting model, a more public and collaborative idea than that called for in the Dimbleby Lecture by Martha Lane Fox’s called DotEveryone. So here are some ideas as to how that might be achieved.

A proposal for a Digital Public Space (DiPS); In 1928 the newly chartered BBC, developed from 2LO in Aldwych, was asked if this new technology, radio, could be used for educational purposes. It commissioned the educational activists of the newly formed British Institute of Adult Education (now NIACE) to examine the case for educational broadcasting. Their joint report New Ventures in Broadcasting resulted in educational radio becoming commonplace in British schools. In 1966 Jennie Lee, Minister of The Arts for the newly elected Labour Government, made the case for A University of the Air (or a Broadcast University). Fortunately they named it the Open University and, in some ways, access to education aligned with the technological capacity available at the time, building on the launch of BBC2 TV. This public University was a platform open to everyone, as anyone could watch and follow the programmes they broadcast, often after coming back from the pub, and, as a “front-room University,” it somewhat displaced public libraries from their role as the national “street-corner University,” and was suddenly capable of Educating Rita, or anyone (including my Dad) who was up for it.

Education and technology are massively out of alignment in the 21st century and there is no corresponding public space for people to engage with issues that matter to them, in the way that the Open University opened out in the 1970s in the UK, although MOOCs, in more limited ways than Open University broadcasting, do offer access to educational content. IN 2000 UNESCO picked up on the inspiration that the BBC had offered in partnership with the Open University, 30 years earlier, and made the case for Open Education, with the proposal that all educational content be made available as Open Education Resources (OERs). The UK had already started engaging in such a process in 1997 with the development of the National Grid for Learning for schools, the name inspired by the National Grid that had put the whole of the UK onto a single shared network for distributing electricity. The NGfL was an early attempt to create a single digital public space for educational content. The UK has continued to develop educational content in various ways since 1997, such as FERL (2000) that became first the National Learning Network and now xtlearn.net, and the Open University itself with Open Learn in 2007. 

More relevantly the NOF-DIGI project, running from 2000-04, digitised cultural content and made it freely available online. A larger project to extend this, called Culture Online, a potential DiPS, was unfortunately slashed in order to pay for the burning of cows during the BSE crisis. Since then we have had, from the USA, iTunes University and xMOOCs offering freely available digital educational content, structured and prepared into pedagogically sound sequences.

An Internet of People, as Ben Hammersley described our potential digital future in his British Council lecture of 2011, needs more than just OERs, however multifarious our access to them. We are moving into a networked digital economy whilst our institutional structures are controlled by people who grew up in hierarchical institutions and who don’t understand the new creativity of loose ties in social networks, nor the democracy of participatory creativity offered by the web, especially using the tools offered on Web2.0.

The recent Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value wants “A Cultural and Creative Ecosystem generating stronger cultural wellbeing and economic growth and opportunity for all citizens and communities.” In arguing on how to create such an eco-system its first recommendation is a call for a Digital Public Space (DiPS). However it is badly thought through, emphasising consumption over creativity; “The DiPS would provide a safe and secure environment in which everyone is empowered to assume their full and fulfilling role as digital cultural consumers, regardless of skill level, ability, status or income.” Given that OFCOM’s definition of media literacy includes “and create content” we would like to see a DiPS that is also a content creation resource, offering both content creation tools (like iWonder) and also digital curation (See the Rijksmuseum online and the Aggregate then Curate model).

In 2006 in Digital Nations in the Making Ian Harford wrote that “the promise of a treasure house of resources, digitally delivered and infinitely customisable, providing control, choice and personalisation for the learner is within reach.” This is a good description of what the Warwick Commission is calling for, in its case as a digital cultural platform. Harford’s book is based on a survey of digital strategies in the UK, the USA and Canada as they existed in 2005, so the potential for a digital public space has been recognisable for many years now. Economically it corresponds to what Steven Johnson, in Where Good Ideas Come From” calls the “adjacent possible,” a platform from which possible innovations have historically emerged, from London Coffee Shops and the RSA Tavern Bar, to the Department of Defense’s ARPAnet and CERN’s World Wide Web. As Johnson puts it “chance favours the connected mind” What a possible Digital Public Space has lacked has been an enabling mechanism to create new “connected minds

BBC and a Digital Public Space (DiPS) In the opinion of this author, and as advocated by Tony Ageh at the BBC in 2010, and by others now there, the BBC could provide the enabling mechanism by which a Digital Public Space could be created and supported for a considerable period of time, following revisions to its Mission, Vision and Charter, perhaps until a DiPs is mature enough to leave home, as did educational broadcasting. As Tony Ageh argued in 2012 DiPS “will stimulate the wider creative economy. Digitising cultural assets, and developing an ever-expanding range of ways legitimately to access and exploit them, will create entirely new industries, providing for highly skilled jobs and new opportunities for entrepreneurs” This economic argument is in-line with Kondratieff’s on long-wave economic change being created by new “meta-technologies,” which create new products and services, in this case digital. Furthermore, as Bill Thompson points out, it would enable a digital public service to be offered over the Net at a time when it is increasingly being privately controlled for commercial reasons, by commercial providers such as Facebook and PayPal.

Revising the BBC’s Charter A revision of the BBC’s charter would be required, and a number of parallel stakeholders would need to be consulted to fine-tune any large-scale, or minor changes, if DiPS is made available through the BBC. The argument for doing this is that the BBC has the greatest public reach and is already the UK’s the most recognisable digital public service. Just after the iPlayer was launched, for example, it accounted for 5% of UK Internet traffic (2008), and that has continued to increase. The quickest way forward might to be to simply extend the existing Vision statement from; “To be the most creative organisation in the world” to; “To be the most creative organisation in the world, supporting a digitally creative nation

Recommendations for the BBC in developing a DiPS 1) The BBC becomes an Open Learning organisation in line with the UNESCO Paris 2012 OER declaration (with annual audits on how this is being achieved) 2) All future BBC commissioning creates additional digital content which is free for use on DiPS (and can be classified as an OER or other learning resource) 3) All future commissioning provides tools, or allow access to tools, that can manipulate that content for third party purposes 4) The BBC is charged with implementing OFCOM’s definition of Media Literacy and will help citizens “create media and communications in a variety of contexts” 5) The BBC will provide and support a Digital Public Space, a digital commons, in which the population can access shared digital content, manipulate it with a range of tools and also learn many of the new skills needed for a digital economy 6) The BBC will provide tools and equipment, such as the Microbit programme, which will enable the development of maker and coding skills as a 21st version of the BBC Micro programme. 7) The BBC will provide support for a community networking project to enable communities to create local networks, to help extend (broadband) access and to provide a 21st Century equivalent of the BBC Domesday Book project of 1986 8) The BBC will support new models of digital learning, such as Aggregate then Curate, to help prepare the UK workforce for its digital future, as part of its commitment to Open Learning

Conclusion – taking Digital Citizenship forward. As the Open Letter indicates, and Richard Barbrook called for at the start of the evening, we need a Net Bill of Rights. But that also needs an enabling mechanism and a recognition that, as John Perry Barlow indicated back in 1996 in A Declaration of Independence on Cyberspace, riffing off the USA’s own Declaration of Independence from the UK in 1776, there is something qualitatively different about the role of cyberspace in peoples lives to that experienced in the existing domains of political life. As Barlow claimed “We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth” whilst repudiating the already “increasingly hostile and colonial measures” being enacted upon the Internet. Once commercial transactions became possible on the internet then its’ increasing corporatisation, reinforced by the greed of the myriad of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs desperate to be the next billionaire, became inevitable. The call for a Digital Public Space is one that is asking for part of this developing digital world to be made available for all those who wish to explore the affordances of these new participatory technologies as creators, rather than being a place where “user surveillance is the dominant business model.” The difference between these two visions relates to privacy, between active citizens empowered by clear digital rights who own their own data, and passive subjects limited to what purchasing behaviours are allowed by a corporatised digital sphere trading in personal data, as exemplified by Google. Please sign the Open Letter call for a Net Bill of Rights.

If you liked this blog post you might like the blog post on the more detailed work we are doing in Mapping Information Landscapes – Emergent Learning

Resources and Quotes Digital Public Space Pamphlet – Bill Thompson (BBC) 

FutureEverything 2013 BBC Domesday Book Project 1986

BBC – Will Tomorrow Work 1982; 5 part TV series looking at the economic consequences of the computerisation of work, recommends national 2-way interactive multi-media optical fibre network

Bill Thompson – What we mean by Digital Public Space

CyberSalonDigital Citizens; From Consumers to Creators

Ian Harford – Digital Nations in the Making

NIACE – History of NIACE OFCOM Media Literacy definition

Steven Johnson; Where Good Ideas Come From 

RSA Animate Warwick Commission; Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity, Growth “There is an urgent need to create a joined-up approach to technological innovation, content creation and digital access to Cultural and Creative Industries.”“The BBC, together with other cultural networks such as What Next? & Voluntary Arts, should launch a high-profile campaign aimed at raising the profile of everyday arts & cultural participation across UK.”

Whitworth et al Aggregate then Curate

After thought; Why do we need a digital public space? The open letter from the Digital Pioneers calls for a stop to the “aggressive privatisation of the digital commons” which is another way of saying we need a digital public space. Bill Thompson of the BBC who has been vocal in calling for a digital public space argues that we now need such a digital public space, as a public service, in order to positively counter the trends of privatisation already identified. The BBC has a long tradition of providing a Broadcasting Commons, of being the national water cooler, and taking that into open education, first with educational broadcasting in 1928 and then with the much copied Open University in 1964 But charging the BBC with being stewards of a digital public space, of preserving and enabling a more interactive digital commons, is only one practical detail in creating a bulwark against the privatisation of the web. Long term economic change,in the interests of citizens, in response to technological disruption is best enabled by what Steven Johnson calls, adjacent platforms, such as London Coffee shops or the RSA Tavern Bar or CERN. Where interested people from many disciplines can share and develop their ideas, not unlike CyberSalon. A digital public space could be a commons from which next generation socio-economic Innovation comes, revitalising the economy not with the aggressive models of the financial markets Big Bang, as we have suffered since 1986, but with the tinkering innovation of the people who created the industrial revolution and so made modern society, with active citizens who are co-creating their digital futures not passive consumers…

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