A ladder to digital democracy

In March of this year the IT work team from the Swedish Ministry of Justice presented the publication Förslag till strategi för att minska de digitala klyftorna(Proposals for a strategy to reduce digital rifts) to the Minister of Democracy, Mona Sahlin. One member of the work team is Ingrid Atlestam, chief librarian of Kortedala district panel of lay assessors in Gothenburg. This is her summary of the issues discussed in the group and the proposals put forward.

Dual problems of democracy
One simplified explanation of the crisis within democracy could be the lack of effective citizens. Citizens who actively exercise their democratic privileges and rights to influence social progress. The situation might be due to feelings of alienation, powerlessness, individualism and to marketing strategies. The public sector’s dilemma is handling an increased need for services, combined with a declining economy and the threat of no staff. In other words how to pursue a policy of fairer distribution of income among different groups in society that does not put at risk democracy and welfare and does not allow rifts to grow, causing a society, built to a certain extent on solidarity and mutual understanding, to no longer be able to function. From the individual’s perspective, the dual problems of democracy can be described as withdrawal from the role as a citizen and dissatisfaction with the user role.

IT as a catalyst
To what extent does IT contribute to solving these problems and to what extent does the new technology instead create and expand on existent rifts? IT has the ability to intensify contacts between citizens, those elected and civil servants of the joint sectors. The internet provides ample opportunity for participating in public information, give voice, adhere to procedures of decision-making, form opinions etc. A number of associations, networks, and instigators of public opinion exist solely because of the web, and the possibilities to combine local and global involvement and access to world-wide information increase knowledge and insight. Effective citizens enhance their competence, increase their level of involvement and those rather passively interested are more easily engaged. Much of the administration surrounding social services can be simplified and made more accessible through IT, and information on the supply of services is kept up to date as well as being cheaper via the web. An increase in the use of IT in the democratic process, the public dialogue, public services, and administration will invariably lead to profits, both financially and democratically. It is already a matter of course for those effective information competent citizens. Nevertheless, this must not take place at the expense of leaving others outside the system.

The digital ladder and the class society
‘The digital rift’ is in fact rather a misleading metaphor. A more apt description is that of a ladder where one must begin on the first rung in order to climb upwards. The higher one reaches, the more IT will alleviate and enrich the individual in her dual role as citizen and user. How far one reaches, depends on one’s position on the ever present social ladder in terms of class, gender, education and income. The main task is to give everybody the possibility of scaling the ladder. One cannot generalise about the digital rifts, represented by each rung on the ladder as each level requires its own analysis and measures.

Approximately 70% of the Swedish population has access to a computer in their homes, although not every member of a household has the same range of possibilities. Research shows that men and children are the main users of computers. Among those who lack access are many from other cultural backgrounds, people with low incomes, of advanced age and little education. We will never, not even with large scale subsidies and campaigns, reach the point when everyone, regardless of age, can access the internet from their homes, and access therefore needs to be secured from public authorities. This is where the public libraries play a pivotal role, a reality that both staff and users in the 1,500 public libraries throughout the country with its 5,000 public computers, have understood. The public libraries are pioneers when it comes to the realisation of the vision of 24-hour service. Ask the Library e-mail and chat forum are established on a national level. Most libraries have their catalogues on the internet and more are offering renewal of book loans, reservations, free searches in pay-databases, ebook loans etc. round the clock. The link lists and portals supplied by the library are often the best introduction for those who wish to search. The present library act stipulates that “public libraries should strive to make database information accessible to all citizens”. In the current overhaul of the Library Act the wording needs to be made more succinct to ensure that libraries “guarantee IT access to information and communication with regard to teaching and effective citizenship”. However, it is obviously not society’s responsibility to give everyone the right to surf.

Technical proficiency
A number of computers remain unused or the usage is limited to games, certain spare time interests, e-mail, school essays and basic bureaucracy. On the whole such use is hardly related to democracy, the usage of IT being more a part of the entertainment industry than democratic processes. A parallel can be drawn to the extensive use of light reading, going back a hundred years, and how it has dominated the libraries’ lending statistics despite ambitious adult education ventures to increase ‘knowledge-orientated reading’. During the past years squeezing everything possible into the notion of lifelong learning, has led to a reversed situation, and the same will no doubt happen to the libraries’ computer service. A change from pleasure to more or less forcefully inflicted usefulness and this development will move rapidly forward. Technical proficiency in handling a computer will become an obvious part of a school’s agenda, but we are not there yet. In the foreseeable future there will need to be free, wideranging teaching of elementary datahandling, even if technology might well become easier to handle eventually. At the library in Kortedala in Gothenburg we have for the past few years offered a programme in elementary data-handling, using PC and the internet. The courses are not only in Swedish, but also in other frequently used languages in the region such as Persian, Arabic, Kurdish and Somali. The response has been excellent and to date 1, 500 have participated.

To possess a language
An inquiry shows that 25% of the population suffer reading and writing difficulties and fail to grasp normal prose and that does not include those who experience problems with the Swedish language because it is not their first language. Everything will, of course, be done to alleviate this problem since the ability to write is decisive for an individual’s possibilities to assert herself in other contexts than those of IT proficiency. The fact remains that special equipment and language aid programmes, supported by technology, can diminish the number of functional illiterates. Speech synthesis, magnification and special programmes should therefore become standard at schools, libraries etc. and should be classified as subsidised disablement aids. It goes without saying that demands placed on all publicly funded websites should adhere to the guidelines agreed upon by the EU-members in WAL,Web Accessibility Initiatives, and that the information aimed at the majority has a language and structure as easily understandable as possible, and also that the wording of demands is made available to the larger minority languages.

Information literacy
The ability to technically search the internet is something completely different to the wording of search queries, how portals, link lists, databases and websites are structured in terms of content. The act of performing ingenious searches is unfamiliar to most and what one does not know, one does not ask for. Traditional information attainment through books, periodicals etc. imply built-in filters. The publication itself is the important aspect, who has published what and why. On the internet everyone is their own publishers and all appear egalitarian, which increases the need for critical assessments. Inquiries show that pupils searching information for their assignments will often be satisfied to “just find something on the subject”, regardless of who has produced the information. The certainty that there is information out there which deliberately seeks to misinform in a way that is virtually impossible to detect, does not make matters any easier. The ability to critically evaluate the sources and the adaptation of the information are part of the concept ‘information literacy’. The proposed educational measures, along with all formal education, will also offer information literacy. On a pragmatic level it has been suggested that national tests in information literacy should be introduced and that a library/civics-portal consisting of civic information should be made available to everyone (similar to www. finfo.dk). Despite all educational ventures and all demands as to content and technical accessibility, there will always be a need for assistance and guidance in the handling of computers and information retrieval. The public libraries can guarantee access to competent staff if funding is granted.

Citizenship competence
The lack of knowledge about democracy and how the public aspects of Sweden are organised is noticeable among new arrivals to the country. Restructuring the public sector and our commitments to the EU involves a number of people who need to be ‘up-graded’ in relation to democracy and civic organisation. The part of the general education previously designated for civic education is barely taught today as most citizens are seen as customers. The decrease in public spending and the changed outlook on mass media culture and its interaction with IT development have brought with it a change in the way we regard information. One can no longer expect to receive it; instead it is something people acquire by themselves. And if information is served on a platter, it requires a critical faculty to query whether the information is correct and comprehensive. The previously mentioned educational measures must therefore also contain social studies.

Liable to a charge
Digital dictionaries, articles databases, periodicals requiring subscription, are a few items that some have access to through their employers or educational institutions. The purpose of which is not to engage in one’s civic role, but to be used in a profession or education. Most people have no access at all and lack the necessary financial means to enter a private subscription.What is liable to a charge can be seen as a parallel to all other media supply, judged relevant enough from given stated objectives and are obtainable free of charge from our public libraries.

Let the ascendancy begin
To summarise, there are three kinds of measures needed to maximise the usage of IT in order to firmly establish democratic procedure. A guaranteed access to technology and competence on premises available to all. Free instruction in technical handling of the computer and ‘information literacy’ with elements of traditional citizenship instruction provided by schools, adult education and libraries, and accessibility and co-ordination to important websites, as well as access to a selection of pay-databases.

On all these points the approximately 1,500 public libraries are a necessity in order to guarantee the citizen’s possibility, with the aid of IT, to safeguard and utilise her rights as a citizen. To take a chance with a hundred year old established structure used by a trusting majority, appears from a financial and democratic point of view to be an obvious choice. According to mass media researcher, Professor Lennart Weibull, the share of the population who adapts to IT, and other technical innovations, will stop at 80%. This entails that there will always be alternate forms needed of personal guidance and information retrieval via libraries, civic offices, telephone services etc. How the future role of the citizen will be affected by IT depends on how political parties, associations, creators of public opinion, the media choose to act and to what extent the state and municipalities try to steer developments through supportive or restraining measures.

What needs to be done?
What will eventually be realised from the proposals put forward in the publication Förslag till strategi för att minska de digitala klyftorna (Proposals for a strategy to reduce digital rifts) is up to the Minister of Integration and Democracy, Mona Sahlin. It is crucial that a discussion about the proposals is invited from as many vantage points as possible. A list of proposals makes no revolution, but the constant dripping of water is said to wear away the stone.

Translated by Jonathan Pearman

Head of library, Kortedala in Gothenburg.