A word of caution about the ‘need to go digital’

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Barry Adams copyBy Barry Adams, Guest editor for VIEW’s Community Goes Digital issue

Digital has become the buzzword of this decade. Everything has to be digital, and we all have to become digitally empowered citizens. Few people ever stop to think about what all this digital malarkey actually means. We’re so caught up in the hype surrounding digital technologies, we can’t see the wood from the trees.

This is especially true in the community and voluntary sector. “We have to go digital!” some poor board member proclaims, having read an alarmist article in a publication about how lagging behind in digital is dangerous.

But those articles have themselves been written by people with, at best, a cursory understanding of digital technologies and their rightful place. The pro-technology propaganda emerging from Silicon Valley is mostly to blame for this. The technology entrepreneurs there fervently proclaim the emancipating powers of digital, evoking images of a techno-utopia where citizens are armed with smartphone apps and social networks that unencumber their chores and enhance every aspect of their daily lives.

So eager are we to believe that there is a singular solution to all our woes, we eagerly lap up the disinformation emerging from the techno-fetishists, and we rarely stop and think about what technology can actually do for us – and what it does to us. I work in the technology sector, and my entire livelihood depends on technology. Without digital technologies, I would be unemployed – and unemployable, I reckon. Yet I am not an uncritical proponent of technology. In fact, I want to warn you about digital technologies.

First of all, we need to realise that much of the technology cheerleading emerges from a camp that has strong vested interests in seeing digital dominate every part of our lives. We don’t necessarily trust the petrochemical industry’s proclamations about fossil fuels, so why are we so tamely accepting the edicts from Silicon Valley about the power of technology? These people are making billions from digital, so of course they want us to welcome even more tech in to our jobs and homes.

Secondly, despite the techno-utopian ravings from Silicon Valley ‘thought leaders’, technology does not serve purely to liberate us. Digital tools are not released in a vacuum – they are made part of established systems and structures which are at least as adept at integrating these technologies as the average citizen is. Technology can just as easily become a burden and a tool for oppression.

Lastly, we need to accept that complex problems are not solved with simple digital solutions. A single app will not solve child poverty. A website will not make domestic abuse disappear overnight. Self-driving cars will not eradicate climate change. We need to step away from technological ‘solutionism’ and adopt digital wisely, and in the right contexts.

In the final analysis, digital technologies are just another tool to be wielded with thought and foresight. When handled appropriately, digital tech can truly serve the greater good – whereas now, it mainly serves the interests of Silicon Valley’s neoliberal capitalists.

For any organisation to utilise digital tech properly, you need to understand what problems it can solve and where digital can fit in to your existing processes and structures. In some cases digital can replace established methods, but nearly always it will serve primarily to augment what you are already doing. Evolution, not revolution.

• Barry Adams is the founder of Polemic Digital – an SEO consultancy based in Belfast

• Read our Community Goes Digital issue at http://viewdigital.org/2015/09/22/community-goes-digital-read-our-latest-issue-of-view/

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