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Digital Nation: Toward an Inclusive Information Society

Author: Anthony G. Wilhelm
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004
Review Published: June 2005

 REVIEW 1: John Carr
 REVIEW 2: John F. Barber

Throughout human history, the fates of societies have often hinged on the possession and use of technologies that lead to advantages for some citizens and demise for others. Steam locomotives, electrification, and automobiles are good examples. In Digital Nation: Toward an Inclusive Information Society, Anthony G. Wilhelm argues that we face a similar crossroad with regard to current and evolving information and communications technologies.
The advantages of going digital, moving bits versus atoms, have been touted for more than a decade. Many businesses have migrated into cyberspace, as have government services at all levels, heath care and utility providers, and information, entertainment, and personal services. Each has argued that doing so allows for more efficient, faster, and cheaper opportunities for the consumer, as well as inclusive, equitable, and democratic services and resources. Wilhelm shows these claims to be often false, details the underlying problems, and suggests a plan to harness the potential of information and communication technologies to achieve a more productive and inclusive society, a Digital Nation.

Wilhelm, Director of the Technology Opportunities Program in the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, argues that technology itself is not the problem, but rather the use of technology and who gets to use it, that can empower or control, unite or divide. His vision of an inclusive Digital Nation allows everyone to take advantage of new technologies, to help revolutionize the way our society educates its citizens, empowers their earning potential, delivers healthcare, and conducts its own governance. The result, he says, will be increased efficiency and productivity, billions of dollars in long-term savings, and enhanced quality of life full of choice and opportunity.

More pragmatically, Wilhelm is quick to admit that the gap between the promise and the practice is wide with large groups of our society excluded from the benefits of a Digital Nation because they lack access to enabling technologies, because they lack the necessary literacy skills, or because their way is blocked in the name of consolidation and control.

Wilhelm notes traditional discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities can arrest long-term performance gains in a Digital Nation where they face equity issues, or worse, suffer from exclusion. There are two lenses, he says, through which to view this problem: the utilitarian and the social justice perspective. The utilitarian lens is generally focused on short-term economic gains and tends to override policy deliberation and strip away ethical considerations, following instead cost-benefit analysis that seem to justify ceaseless expansion under the mantle of economic, security, and national defense arguments. Billions of dollars change hands to uphold entrenched commercial interests but very little thought is given, or value assigned, to complex social and environmental challenges underlying an expanding economy.

As for social justice, Wilhelm argues that universal education is a productive melding of economic efficiency and human values. Education forms the basis for society's well being through its production of human capital, the value emanating from the skills and abilities a person brings to the market place. This dual role of education is important to a Digital Nation since telecommunications are both critical enablers for anytime, anywhere learning as well as vehicles for improving people's lives. Based on this duality, Wilhelm argues that in addition to the investment already made to equip and connect many classrooms, schools, and libraries across the country with hardware, we also need to invest in teacher training. Well-equipped and well-trained teachers will be instrumental in teaching others how to utilize communications and information technologies to build a future driven by their own skills and interests.

The general public is supportive of programs that equip their children with the literacy skills they will need in the future, but it is another question all together, Wilhelm says, whether they are willing to pay for such preparation, especially when it competes with other domestic concerns.

Therefore, an economic argument may well be ultimately, the main driver for migrating society toward the smart use of information tools, toward a Digital Nation. The positive economic impact of universal utilization of information technology is easy to project in all sectors of economic, educational, and civic life and Wilhelm argues that concerted efforts today to continue scaling high-performance programs will yield substantial future dividends in the areas of social distress, poverty, literacy, and underdeveloped/underutilized potential.

The trend, however, seems to be just the opposite. Many government and private programs designed to build and support movement toward a Digital Nation have been either sharply curtailed or dropped altogether in response to economic uncertainty and a change of priorities at the top levels of business and government. The result is the marginalization and disenfranchisement of a large portion of our population who are unable or unwilling to participate in a growing "digital only" society where the traffic of information and ideas are concentrated in the hands of a wealthy few.

This "digital divide" will continue to widen and discriminate against those who lack access to and skills in using information and communications technologies, Wilhelm warns. Even those who do have access to digital technologies will suffer as the current rush to centralize and control cyberspace turns it into a networked electronic panopticon where government, military, and corporate concerns have, to a large part, already displaced the notion of a decentralized and democratic cyberculture with their own efforts to maintain their grip on the flow of ideas, people, and money.

Against this current scenario, Wilhelm presents his vision for use of networked and decentralized intelligence to establish and maintain a Digital Nation that will both democratize and liberate its citizens. Efforts to address digital dignity will require focusing on the obligations of public education and government to serve all peoples without discrimination, says Wilhelm. The first step, he argues, is charismatic leadership capable of articulating to a wide constituency the importance of a Digital Nation. Such leadership must come from industry, government, and philanthropy, and must promote next-generation policy solutions that not only promise early and short-term successes, but also scale well for continued success in the future. Clear and achievable national goals and benchmarks must be articulated, as well as incentives for reaching them and penalties for noncompliance. These leaders must not only muster the long-term budget outlays necessary to build and sustain a Digital Nation, but also build grassroots support, for example by convincing parents their children need computers, or lobbying local school boards to require extra professional development of new teachers to build their digital literacy skills.

Beyond the existent substantial investment in a hardware infrastructure, and any that might come in the future, Wilhelm argues the need for extensive and continuing training in order to "e-enable" the citizens of a Digital Nation. Such training is especially important, he says, for the youth of our society, the early adopters and shapers of nascent communication and information technologies as well as the producers and consumers of the future. The extent to which these youth are trained to use information and communications technologies will determine the level of success of a Digital Nation. Without equal access to tools and programs aimed at building technology capacity in local and global communities, many youth will be denied the opportunity to participate fully in the potential and promise of their future. Worse, they will be exploited, considered as expendable, even disposable, by others with more wealth or better access to communications and information technologies.

Unless our efforts to create and maintain a Digital Nation can rise above current governmental inaction and indifference, Wilhelm argues, the digital divide will continue to marginalize large groups of citizens, presenting them with a future that lacks meaning. Here, Wilhelm draws a connection between education, training, and enlightened government/corporate leadership. He says building on the self-interest of politicians and business leaders and the legal obligation of government to serve its citizens will avoid the issue of the digital divide becoming a civil rights struggle in coming years.

The upshot of these steps should be universal access to information and communications technologies needed for economic gain and civic engagement on the part of all peoples, and full funding for training and the development of content and new applications necessary to support democratic and open learning opportunities that can be customized anywhere, anytime, by anyone.

In the end, a Digital Nation must reflect a democratic society having harnessed the best technologies in pursuit of the well-being and edification for all its citizens. A Digital Nation must create avenues for deeper participation and accountability. And a Digital Nation must motivate and empower its citizens to invent their own futures. The vision laid out by Anthony Wilhelm in Digital Nation: Toward an Inclusive Information Society is both inspiring and compelling.

John F. Barber:
John F. Barber teaches Science Fiction at The University of Texas at Dallas within a transdisciplinary program focused on the necessary intersection of art, humanities, technology, and science. His research and publication often falls into the arenas of communication and speculation, especially as they may facilitate teaching and learning. An example is New Worlds, New Words: Exploring Pathways for Writing about and in Electronic Environments, a volume edited with Dene Grigar focusing on the future of writing resulting from its move to inhabit electronic spaces.  <jfbarber@eaze.net>

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