Since taking on the information society portfolio I have become fascinated by the amount of material being produced and at the huge amount of activity going on about the information society. The trouble is it’s not easy to come up with a definition of this type of society and, therefore, difficult to say when it will have arrived.
The second government action plan, New Connections, was published more than three years ago and the second Information Society Commission has completed its work. From our perspective, a remaining issue is the availability of broadband and it is an issue that continues to receive attention. I know there are people who are not happy with the rate of progress in rolling out broadband but I am happy things are moving and it will be less of an issue as we go forward.
The other main area is the digital divide. This is an area that will continue to demand attention because there are many people who have not got access to — or who don’t bother with — technology. There are many facets to this ‘problem’ and it requires intervention at a number of levels.
The e-Inclusion Fund will go some way towards addressing the problem insofar as it affects the elderly and people with disabilities. I know too that many community-based organisations are availing of Mobhaile to get online and to create meaningful content for their members.
And content — which is the reason to use technology — is key to stimulating demand. This is important because one of our aims going forward is to promote the use of technology generally where it has a beneficial impact. My philosophy would be that getting people online for any purpose that interests them should give them an appetite for more.
Once people have broken the technology barrier, they will start to look at how else it can be of use to them.
One of the great inhibitors to progress is the over-emphasis on the technology itself. I frequently hear people talking about technology and they often find it difficult to decipher the jargon and language that frightens so many people away.
For instance, most people with TVs and video or DVD players don’t tend to get all that excited about the technology that makes them operate.
While they may like flat screens or the fact that you can skip around the content of a DVD, they tend to talk about the experience rather than the stuff that it’s made from.
Taking that a step further, we should be focusing on how technology can enhance or improve the experience of whatever we are doing. If, for instance, you are shopping, the question is whether and how technology can improve the experience. And you can apply the same test to practically every form of activity that you engage in from the cradle to the grave. I know some of the issues that come up a lot are the ‘organisation of the future’ or the ‘school of the future’, or the ‘home of the future’, or the ‘shop of the future’ and so on. In each of these there is activity going on and it is fair to say that technology can impact on the experience of doing that activity. In fact, technology has always had an impact on those activities.
So why are we so focused on the technology now? What’s different today is the internet and all the related technologies have the potential to impact on so many of our activities; it’s not just a single technology in a single application. While the twin-tub washing machine may have revolutionised the domestic laundry process, its impact was confined to the act of doing the weekly washing. Similarly, while television may have impacted on the entertainment industry in all sorts of ways, for most people it was confined initially to the living room and impacting on the way they spent their leisure time at home. Here again, the impact was confined to one main activity.
One of the challenges that public policy makers have to grapple with is how to get people to engage with the new technologies in whatever they are doing without frightening them off. The trouble is that people are doing all sorts of things and it is not possible to get at each individual to talk about their activity and how it could be improved. But we know that there are sectors where people tend to do similar or related things. By focusing on those sectors and groups we can engage with greater numbers of people. That is the rationale behind our approach to tackling the digital divide — and we are particularly keen to focus on groups catering to the needs of the elderly and people with disabilities.
But it strikes me that all of us could do with a closer look at what our activities are in our jobs, our homes and in living generally, to see to what extent we can make the working, living, shopping, learning, travelling, communicating, participating — even enjoying — a better experience.
We should be focusing on all of our ‘ings’ rather than just getting excited about the latest gismos. If we do that, we don’t necessarily have to try to envision the organisation of the future, but the organising of the future — the way we go about organising in government, in business, at school or wherever. There is no use dwelling on the paperless office unless you get at the activity that creates the paper in the first place.
The development of the information society has been an evolutionary process and our thinking has changed in the light of experience. We are now at a stage where we can make real transformations by looking at our activities and our goals rather than at technological solutions to problems that we haven’t yet defined. This has the potential to be a wave of discovery and excitement.
By Tom Kitt TD, Minister of State for the Department of the Taoiseach