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Desire and Exclusion
The Never Ending Quest for Universal Access

Our calls for action and our discussions about how to embark on that action are based on a number of assumptions that often go unquestioned. That's normal. Assumptions are made to save us having to revisit basic issues every time we act. However, situations change and assumptions cease to be valid. In addition, the beliefs behind certain assumptions were never even questioned at the outset. Masquerading as good ideas full of promise, some assumptions are trumpeted by those whose vested interest consists of building their empire on our unquestioning acceptance of those ideas. The faster they act, the more likely their ideas are to take root and lead to a multitude of ramifications that make undoing what has been done almost impossible. In the mean time, those ideas have been taken up and championed by other honest folk whose only aim is to do good.

Such is the case with the battle for universal access to networks and related services. It would be pretty unpopular to insist on less. In fact, discussions about the subject rarely concern the desirability of such universality, but rather concentrate on how to make it come about. In what follows, I would like to take the risk of challenging the assumption that the drive to make networked services universally accessible is desirable or even feasible. Let me hasten to add that I am not arguing for elitism or programmed exclusion. The point I will try to make is that, paradoxically, in seeking to attain universality, exclusion is the foregone outcome.

Desire ...

One of the phenomena that we will have to address here is the impact of the desire created by the availability of a new tool. Let's take the example of mobility. The extent of mobility afforded by motorised transport would have been almost unthinkable prior to its invention. The advent of the train, the car and the plane modified our perception of the world and created desires even in people not having access to those means of transport. Mobility has become a human right.

... and exclusion

Embodied in the concept of "haves-and-havenots" is both a generalised desire to use a given tool and the judgement that that use is good for one and all. Let's go back to our example of mobility. If there are no buses or trains to your village and you have no car - and what's more walking, cycling or horse riding are out of the question - then when the last shop closes in your village for lack of custom, you could be in a very difficult situation. Note that it was the presence of motorised transport that enabled the development of supermarkets and subsequent hypermarkets that led to the decline of local shops. Going even further back in time, industrialisation produced an ever-increasing dependence of families on shopkeepers for their everyday needs. The advent of motorised mobility has thus brought about changes that forced its use on a great part of the population and had a considerable impact on the lives of almost everybody. Enthusiasts, however, stop short of advocating the generalisation of the use of the motorised vehicle because it has become clear that that would produce an environmental catastrophe.

With electronic networks and related services, advocates of universality are arguing that all those who do not have access (presumably both physical access as well as the necessary know-how to use it) will be seriously penalised in the future heavily-networked society. How will they be penalised? Rather like the shopless village requires cars or public transport, so essential services provided initially both online and "offline" will increasingly be provided only online because it is economically more efficient to do so, leaving those who don't have access out in the lurch.

The driving forces

Whether or not those services are really essential will not matter. Many of them will become essential, like the Sunday family outing in the car or the weekly drive to the local supermarket. Between the strongly desired and the absolutely necessary, exclusion comes when these new tools are the only perceived means of access. Social pressure plays a key role. Your friend, for example, urges you to get an e-mail account because it is easier to exchange messages with him because he's already using the Net. Not to mention the ever present billboards and other sirens that invite you to take the plunge. The commercial forces driving the expansion and generalisation of the Internet have a vested interest in making their services appear indispensable to as many people as possible. The same applies to administrations that measure the success of their services in terms of the number of people using them. In addition, the hoped for saving in costs on certain services can only come if everybody uses the system. The numerical success of a given service in terms of income or numbers of users is, however, not necessarily an indication of the fundamental need for such a service or of its long term good for society.

The paradox

Against this backdrop, why insist that the idea of universal access necessarily leads to exclusion? Because the concept embodies the assumption that using the network is necessary for everybody, whereas it is far from proven that everybody needs or wants access. What's more, experience with the telephone has shown that - despite enormous efforts - it is not at all easy to provide access to everybody. We could also question the so-called role of the telephone in improving communication.

Those that advocate "universal access" are cautious about individual freedom. Their aim is to give everybody the possibility to choose to have access rather than forcing the individual to use the network. Yet that insistence on access is more than enough to create exclusion. The more we insist on the necessity and desirability of access, the greater the feeling of exclusion will be in those who don't have it, even if they don't want it or need it.

Will people be free not to have access?

In asking ourselves the question "Do I really need to use the network for this activity?", we are already tacitly giving the network priority over our own individual and collective fundamental needs. Of course, the network is marketed as satisfying many of our needs: for communication and exchange, for community, for learning, for work, for health,... not to mention a lot of exciting new needs and satisfactions. Faced with all these promises, it might be propitious to draw back a moment, before we decide, and ask ourselves what we really need. But to do so, we must free ourselves of those desires inculcated by a host of vested interests whether they be commercial, political or personal, as many of those desires go hand-in-hand with the necessity of the network. In other terms, what I'm trying to say - to misquote Anne Givaudan (Alliance, Editions SOIS, 2000) - is that "Technology without the voice of the heart is like an empty shell".

Alan McCluskey, St-Blaise.

See also "Belonging and being excluded", written exactly three years earlier. Share or comment
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Created: May 15th, 2000 - Last up-dated: May 15th, 2000