Q&A  | 

Bill Dutton

“Being online is a relatively safe place to be”


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Bill Dutton is the Quello Professor of Media and Information Policy at Michigan State University, where he is Director of the Quello Center. He was the OII’s Founding Director, a Fellow of Balliol College and the first Professor of Internet Studies at Oxford University.

In which key areas can internet access improve lives?

Information. Information. Information. And this applies across all areas of our everyday life and work. If more individuals can gain access to high-quality information of immediate relevance to their problems at any time from any place and on any topic, their communicative power vis-à-vis other actors will be enhanced.

The empowerment of networked individuals will enable what I have called a new ‘Fifth Estate’, more powerful, responsive, and democratic than the Fourth Estate of the independent press, but complementary to it.

Where do you see the biggest problem areas in terms of location but also demographics?

Broadband access is more challenging in deep – truly remote – rural areas. However, distressed areas of central cities and suburbia are also challenged to gain access to broadband services in the household beyond mobile phones.

There is an accompanying risk of a growing mobile-only divide, where individuals with multiple devices that provide more power and flexibility have more communicative power than individuals that are only reliant on mobile phones.

Demographically, senior citizens have been the most challenged by the rise of the Internet, but with the evolution of mobile Internet smart phones, even the young will be challenged by being too dependent on mobile-only access, which will limit their ability to excel in many activities better supported by text, such as completing homework, or writing a novel.

Why do some people still opt out of Internet access when they have the opportunity? 

Today, many pundits and politicians are seriously scaring many households about the potential harms flowing from the use of the Internet and social media. They should all read Mark Twain’s lovely story of ‘The Dangers of Lying in Bed’, which he wrote to address the panic over people being killed in train wrecks. Being online is a relatively safe place to be.

But an even greater problem is that the Internet is an experienced technology, as noted before. You can explain the advantages of using the Internet or search, for example, to a person, but they cannot fully grasp its significance until they use it and experience how powerful this can be.

Getting people who do not see why they need the Internet to experience it is one of the most challenging problems.

The good news is that people with experience online can see and judge the value of the Internet and social media for themselves.

But pundits, politicians, and academics should never underestimate the impact their scare stories might well have for an individual or communities who could find true value in being connected and empowered in the online world.

Is today’s rapid evolution of technologies lessening the digital divide or contributing to its growth in the education sector in particular? 

The Internet has been incredibly successful for informal education – outside educational institutions.

In my opinion, we have still not figured out how to exploit the potential of the Internet within formal educational institutions.

To some degree, students figure this out on their own, such as simply using the technologies for their projects and work outside the classroom, but by and large, educational institutions continue to adopt and adapt new technologies to reinforce traditional classroom instruction, and this has not proven to be that effective. In most classrooms, the teacher is at the centre, and new media helps keep the teacher as the focus of attention. Online, and in informal education, the learner is at the centre of the network.

Inequalities deepen when education is not easily modified for local contexts. How can we make the Internet more inclusive?

We need to facilitate and encourage individuals and communities to create content, not just consume the content created by others. Some thought that the Internet would support a single common language, but it has reinforced and vitalised the sustainability of language communities by connecting people across the globe.

But this requires the production of material in all languages and cultures when some trends in use of the Internet are undermining production and mimicking more traditional mass media – watching blockbusters on a mobile device.

Slow speeds and access barriers create everyday issues, such as difficulty registering for school or completing homework. But even access does not guarantee the real use of the educational potential of ICTs. How can we guarantee success?

Correct. Broadband or wireless networks will not be silver bullets for the homework gap or education in general.

Technical advances are important, but they need to be accompanied by policy, social and cultural initiatives to prioritise education and learning.

Motivation seems to be the biggest barrier, especially for low-income groups. How can we motivate people to get online? Could social media be the answer?

In our research of the use of the Internet in Detroit, we found that most households were truly interested in being online. That is, the idea that the poor are not motivated to be online is in large part a myth.

Anyone from any income group can find value online because you can find material and communicate about almost anything. Only on the Internet can you find others who are interested in ‘extreme ironing’.

In volunteering at a soup kitchen for the homeless, I have been struck by the line of homeless to use a limited number of computers to do such things as gain social support, find a lost relative, or watch a YouTube video.

Has globalisation created additional barriers when it comes to adult computer literacy? 

Globalisation has raised the promise and value of adult computer literacy. Just over half of the world is now online, but nearly half of the world remains offline and unable to tap into the troves of global information resources available at the fingertips of Internet users.

This is a big topic, but all aspects of globalisation are supported by a global, open, Internet, and in turn, the evolution of the Internet should support globalisation, but even more so if adult computer literacy is also supported.

As children of poorer parents in America are increasingly raised by screens, the children of the elite are growing up with limited access and more human interaction. Will the digital divide eventually reverse itself?

There is a developing wisdom that too much screen time will have a negative impact on education and learning. On the one hand, too much of anything, whether romance novels or board games, could undermine education and learning of broader scope. On the other hand, research has not only been very equivocal about the impact of screen time, but it is a bit romantic and somewhat ignorant of past debates. Think back to the emergence of computing and the personal computer, which scholars such as Seymour Papert, argued that computing was very promising for education because of its “holding power”. Traditionally, one of the greatest challenges to childhood education has been gaining the sustained attention of children in learning and educational activities, such as paying attention in class. My experience today in reading to my granddaughter brought this home.

The main promise of computing – through screens – has been the phenomenal holding power of interactive technology in keeping the attention of young learners. So be careful what you ask for.