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«Bridging cultural and digital divides. Signifying everyday life, cultural diversity and participation in the on-line community Video Nation Nico ...»

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working paper 2002-05

Bridging cultural and digital divides.

Signifying everyday life, cultural diversity and

participation in the on-line community Video

Nation

Nico Carpentier

Korte Meer 3

B-9000 Gent

Belgium

tel. ++ 32 (0)9 264 8438 www.re-creatiefvlaanderen.be

fax ++ 32 (0)9 264 9196 info@re-creatiefvlaanderen.be

Deze paper kwam tot stand met de steun van de Vlaamse Gemeenschap: Programma Steunpunten voor Beleidsrelevant Onderzoek. In

de tekst komt de mening van de auteur naar voor en niet die van de Vlaamse Gemeenschap. De Vlaamse Gemeenschap kan niet aansprakelijk worden gesteld voor het gebruik dat kan worden gemaakt van de meegedeelde gegevens.

This paper has been realised with support of the Flemish Community: Program for Policy Research Centres. The text contains the views of the author and not the views of the Flemish Community. The Flemish Community cannot be held accountable for the potential use of the communicated views and data.

Bridging cultural and digital divides.

Signifying everyday life, cultural diversity and participation in the on-line community Video Nation Nico Carpentier1 The discourse on the digital divide is characterised by an emphasis on the notion of (equal) access to specific types of media technologies. Populations are divided into information haves and information have-nots and policies are oriented towards the stimulation of the adoption of these technologies. As such this discourse has become (and/or remains) a ‘digital myth’ (Frissen, 2000), which is predominantly media-centred and technology determined thus reducing the social complexity to the virtual binary. Although the digital divide discourse should be considered problematic at the empirical, conceptual, ideological and epistemological level, some elements of the digital divide discourse are worth saving, more specifically a broadened notion of access, and the emancipatory discourse of a struggle against social exclusion that lies hidden somewhere behind the discursive complexity of the digital divide discourse. This paper aims to return to these basic premises by broadening the scope and focusing on the abilities of ICT to stimulate access, interaction and participation. To provide empirical support for this (re)analysis and re-articulation, a case study on the British Video Nation project will be addressed in this paper. The original version of Video Nation was launched in the autumn of 1993 and ended in 2000, but this project has been turned into an ‘online community and archive’. Video Nation is oriented towards representing the everyday but multilayered culture of ‘ordinary people’ and the cultural diversity within the British Nation. At the same time this project aims to maintain a balanced power relation between participants and members of the production team. The conclusion contains a plea for (further) stimulating the participatory attitude of media professionals at the micro, meso and macro level, focussing on the political, social, artistic and cultural dimensions that are interwoven with the everyday, on situating the audience within their communities and organisations and on drafting participants’ rights. Secondly the projectoriented approach is placed on the foreground, as this organisational form allows for a more structural approach and creates more space for the integrated use of different available media platforms.

Dr. Nico Carpentier is researcher at the Cultural Policy Research Centre 'Steunpunt Re-Creatief Vlaanderen', 1 research topic: ICT. contact: nico.carpentier@vub.ac.be 2 working paper 2002-05

1. Introduction This paper has two objectives. The first (theoretical) objective is to develop an analytical model for the analysis of the participatory nature of cultural products. Sources of inspiration are the models that have been developed in traditional media theory (and more specifically in the domain of participatory communication), and in new media and ICT2 theory. Both approaches have an emphasis on access in common, but differ in their use of participation on the one hand, and interaction on the other hand. In this paper the different articulations of these three signifiers are outlined first, and then integrated in one analytical model.

The second ambition of this text is oriented towards the confrontation of the analytical model with a concrete cultural practice. This approach lines up with the basic principles of qualitative methodology, where the integration of theory building and testing in an iterative cycle is preferred (Wester, 1987; Maso, 1989; Wester 1995). The selection of this case study is not surprisingly legitimised by the way this always obstinate cultural reality finds its match in the constructed theoretical model. Video Nation is a BBC project that is characterised by a high level of participation and that can act as a ‘case of good practice’ (Carpentier et al. 2002: 59), as – formulated by the BBC’s press service (1994) - ‘people [can use cameras] to directly portray their own lives in their own terms.’ After a (relatively) long existence on television, this project now leads its life on the web3, and connects to both the body of thought on participation (and traditional media theory) and the body of thought on interaction (and new media theory). This specificity enables a confrontation with both the participatory and interactive aspects of the developed analytical model.





Moreover the Video Nation case study allows placing the inevitable presence of an ideological component in the cultural production and reception on the foreground. Following Althusser (1990: 25) we can posit that ‘the representations of ideology thus consciously or unconsciously accompany all the acts of the individuals, all their activity, and all their relations […].’ This necessarily includes the choices made by media professionals and the basic principles they draft, which cannot escape the ideological omnipresence.

2. Developing the AIP-model

2.1. Access and the digital divide discourse The starting point of this analysis is the digital divide discourse. This choice is based on the importance that has been attributed to the signifier access4 within this discourse, and the high profile of this discourse as such. Building on one of the key notions of Laclau and Mouffe’s (1985) discourse theory, the role of access within the digital divide discourse can be defined as a nodal point. As a nodal point it creates the stability and fixity that every discourse needs to maintain its coherence. This stability is never complete, which is illustrated by the sometimes subtle differences in the used definitions on the digital divide. Rice (2002: 106) defines the digital divide for instance as the ‘differential access to and use of the Internet according to gender, income, race and location.’ The definition used at the Digital Divide Network’s website is again slightly different as the digital divide is seen here as the ‘gap between those who can effectively use new information and communication tools, such as the Internet, and those who cannot.’ A similar but still different definition can be found at the Digitaldivide.org website: here the digital divide is ‘the gap between those able to benefit by digital technologies and those who are not.’ Yet another definition can be found in the ‘bringing the nation on-line’-report (Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund & Benton Foundation, 2002: 4), where it is stated that ‘recognizing that no one should be left behind in the information age, both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government […] have played important leadership roles in bridging the knowledge gap between the "information haves" and the "have-nots" — what some refer to as the digital divide.’ Information and Communication Technologies 2 http://www.bbc.co.uk/videonation 3 4 The centrality of the signifier access is well illustrated by the rather enormous amount of research aimed at documenting socio-demographically based differences in Internet access. Moreover, it should be noted that in this paper the focus is predominantly on Internet access, but the same points could be made for the much broader discussion on ICT access.

Bridging cultural and digital divides: the on-line community Video Nation 3 This last report is (on the civilrights.org website) graphically illustrated by a collage of pictures, which include a smiling child with her hands on a pc and a group of people (differing in age, sex and ethnicity) gathered around another pc, signifying an orientation towards the future, community and cultural difference. Interestingly enough, no content is shown on the screens. The other two pictures are more oriented towards technology, as they show a motherboard and (severed) hands working on a laptop. As is argued in feminist theory the fragmentation of the body (Coward, 1978; Delhaye

1995) is related to the importance that is attributed to the bodily parts that are on display, in this case the hands as necessary operators of the technological equipment). In itself this collage of pictures already offers a clear visual condensation of the discourse of the digital divide.

As most of the definitions above illustrate, the digital divide discourse is based on the articulation of three elements: 1/the importance of access to on-line computers, 2/which use results in increased levels of information, knowledge, communication or other types of socially valued benefits 3/that are in turn so vital that the absence of access and the resulting ‘digibetism’ (or computer illiteracy) will eventually create or maintain a dichotomous society of haves and havenots.

When framing this discussion on the signifier access in the development of an analytical model, especially the critiques on the digital divide discourse become valuable. This specific articulation of the discourse of the digital divide, with access as its nodal point, tends to exclude a series of other relevant meanings. As is the case in any discourse, a specific set of elements is linked in a way that their identity is modified by the articulatory practice (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985: 105). The discourse of the digital divide can be analysed, and in a way deconstructed, by focusing on the specificity of the articulation of the different elements that compose the discourse, and by focusing on what meanings and elements become excluded by these specific articulations. In this context, three lines of critique are discussed. Each line of critique struggles in a specific way against certain articulations and disarticulations and offers at the same time an enriching addition to the meaning(s) of access.

A first line of critique touches the very hart of the digital divide discourse, challenging the truth claim this discourse inherently carries, at the empirical, conceptual, ideological and epistemological level. More

gentle criticisms are oriented towards the notion that a two-tiered division is not tenable. Van Dijk (1999:

155) pleads for replacing the ‘gap’ or ‘divide’ by a ‘continuum’. Others point to the dynamic character of innovation and access to technologies, the role and specificity of early adopters (and im- or explicitly to Rogers’ (1996) theory of the diffusion of innovation) in order to account for the reduction or reinterpretation of the ‘divide’. Frissen (2000) takes this position and refers (a bit less gently) to the ‘myth of the digital gap’.

BBC News Online (1999) – Special report:

An even more ‘Bridging the digital divide’ fundamental version of this (conceptual) critique is that the digital divide discourse articulates a dichotomy between information haves and information havenots, between information rich and information poor or between those who use, benefit from or have access to the Internet and those who do not5. Not only does this dichotomy imply a static approach to technological innovation, but it also offers a structuring of the social on the basis of a technological criterion, both in explaining contemporary and future societies. Especially when the introduction and/or increased access to these ‘technologies of freedom’ (de Sola Pool, 1983) is seen as the motor for social development, a technological deterministic ideology is seen in operation. Moreover at the epistemological level the foregrounding of (having access to) information forms again a specific articulation that is closely related to the more liberal approaches towards a free flow of information as a democratic practice. The 5 Users of these discursive elements often bracket them, signifying their unease with the signifier. Despite the implied conditionality, the signifiers are still articulated as described in the paper.

4 working paper 2002-05 fetishisation of information (to the detriment of knowledge) is based on a very mechanical approach to human learning and knowledge acquisition. One of the major reasons for this can be found in the lack of adequate philosophical reflection on the concepts of information and knowledge (Karvonen, 2001: 50).

Stehr (1994: 92) argues here that especially the concept of knowledge has been treated as a black box.

These different positions, that all question the truth claim of the digital divide discourse, allow for the articulation of access as a dynamic and multi-dimensional phenomenon, that includes both technological, social and cultural aspects.



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