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The following text was written by way of preparation for the seminar entitiled "L'artiste, le citoyen et l'entrepreneur" organised by the CICV in collaboration with ARTEC and the Council of Europe during the Festival "La Vallée des Terres Blanches".

Belonging and being excluded

Belonging or not belonging

What does belonging imply? Being accepted by a group? Feeling you have an enhanced identity? Having a sensation of power? Complying to certain tacit or explicit rules? Having both privileges and constraints?... Does the fact of belonging to a group necessarily lead to exclusion? Clearly not. There are so many groups and categories that each of us do not belong to without us feeling excluded. Rather exclusion springs from the desire to belong while not being able to. Such a description seems to place the onus for exclusion on the individual or group of individuals whereas both belonging and being excluded are not just the attributes of an individual but are above all on-going relationships in which technology may or may not play a role.

Clearly the attitude or behaviour of those in groups and of those outside them are at the heart of exclusion. Is it in the nature of certain types of groups that they naturally seek to grow and when they can no longer grow, to defend their identity? Such was Elias Canetti's hypothesis in his book "Crowds and Power"... and, as a consequence, do (dominant and would-be dominant) groups necessarily set out to create a strong desire to belong to them even if the conditions are such that most people cannot?

Tools of exclusion?

Does the use of tools necessarily lead to the exclusion of those not using them? How many people feel excluded because they don't have a printing press or a video recorder? Is it not rather the fact of making tools appear necessary to everybody for would-be essential activities that creates the feeling of exclusion on the part of those who are unable to use them, especially when those tools can't completely fulfil their promise? Is this not exactly what advertising sets out to do: make a product seem absolutely essential even if you don't need it or can't have it? The information society - our saviour? Do not the market forces (and to a lesser extent the political forces) behind the adoption of information and communication technologies push for widespread if not all-embracing use of these tools? Commercially speaking the aim is clearly to have a maximum number of customers. As for government administrations, hoped for savings in using such technologies will be lost if traditional means have to be maintained in parallel with new electronic tools. But is the search for "all-embracing, universal solutions" that are good for everyone feasible or even desirable? Dare we ask the question?

Universal access

Is not the talk of universal access to the so-called "Information Society" tools an indication that the use of such tools is seen by its advocates as necessarily involving everybody? Does not talking about the need for universal access, imply that:
  1. it is essential that everyone have "access"?
  2. that many do not have access and that providing access is likely to be a problem?
In international discussions about the future of telecommunications, universal access (to the Global Information Infrastructure) is posited as a right. Should it be? Can we even ask this question without being suspected of elitism? Advocating access as a right takes it for granted that it is desirable for each and every person to be connected. It certainly becomes a necessity if essential human activities only go through that medium. But even if such an all-embracing project were feasible, is it desirable? In their drive to profit from the largest possible market, are not commercial interests blinded by their own egotistical desires into believing that what they sell is just what everybody else wants? The market is like the mirror on the wall in Snow White... "Mirror, mirror on the wall who's the most beautiful of them all?..." Woe betide those who believe the market never lies!

At the same time, is not the attention given to universal access symptomatic of a belief that possessing the tools is in itself sufficient? "Just plug-in and away you go!" says the slogan. Strangely enough for a proclaimed knowledge society, emphasis continues to be placed on the possession of commodities rather than the development and use of knowledge. Access to the Global Information Infrastructure without the knowledge to use that access is meaningless?

Access to the Global Information Infrastructure and (occasionally) the related knowledge are seen as a source of empowerment for those excluded from power. Is this hope justified? When portable video came onto the market in the '60s, militant organisations were full of hope. Here was a tool that would democratise mass media. Events turned out quite different. For one, they had overlooked the problem of language. Although the Net is not really comparable, there has been a similar belief in the empowerment of tools forgetting that most disempowerment springs from social systems and the lack of human, rather than technological, skills.

Some possible paths to follow ...

  • Wisdom would have it that there need be an on-going balance between self assertion and self-effacement, between competition and collaboration, between the group and the individual, between thought and action,... exploration along these lines might well prove fruitful.
  • Exclusion is essentially a question of relationships. Advocates of technological solutions systematically forget the need for "human skills". One way of approaching this problem might be to re-evaluate necessary skills and know-how in the modern world so as to include human and relational skills. (See the special report on Emotional Intelligence)
  • It might be fruitful to cease thinking of such technologies as all-embracing. One possible way of doing so would be to start by asking ourselves some basic questions: Where are we going? Why are we going there? How do we plan to get there? How does this fit into the larger picture?
  • Instead of talking exclusively in terms of universal access, it might be instructive to explore the implications of guaranteeing the right to be disconnected. It might also be interesting to rehabilitate the counterpart of rights by considering the associated responsibilities.
Alan McCluskey, St-Blaise. Share or comment
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Created: May 14th, 1997 - Last up-dated: May 14th, 1997