Information Inequalities and Cultural Life: University of Manchester Policy Week Nov 2014

This piece of writing came about through being asked by Dr Drew Whitworth to present at University of Manchester Policy Week on Information Inequalities.   The Ragged University started as a project to foster existing communities and improve people’s lives by bringing people together around knowledge building. It occurred that there was a need to be met beyond the formal spaces, not as an alternative, but as a complement to them which belonged and was shaped by the community which participated in the knowledge sharing.
Rather than taking an organisational route which involved administrating interpersonal interactions, and forms of bureaucracy which had a formalising influence on the social activities, the Ragged project aimed to authentically reflect the needs of the community without the creation of an administrative superstructure.

Ragged University

This perspective evolved from the understanding that there are problems to adopting the organisational strategies which govern institutional spaces. They change the nature of the interactions which people engage in, and thus have the effect of changing the people who engage in the spaces.

The conditionality’s which come with the funding made it impossible for the four teams which did run, to be able to accept financial resources without onerous outcomes and measurements administrations which accompany them. Often there are literacy problems where the funding bureaucracies have become so specialised that one needs relevant experience or training to access them, or one requires the necessary intellectual and cultural capital to be awarded them.
The result is an informational inequality which arises and requires an enfranchised individual to tap into resources which enable further community activities. The ability for community groups to translate their activities into forms of language which are recognised in the world of policy is highly dependent on:

  • Whether the language or research cited is recognised by the ruling community of practice (for example, citing social capital research is not recognised by some authorities; or informal education is nor regarded as having public value under the prescribed regime);
  • Whether sufficient administrative input can be made to these ‘down-sourced’ bureaucracies to satisfy the release of funds or resources (for example, filling out the necessary grant forms and providing the stipulated outcomes and measurements takes up too much human resources to enable the small community concern to make it worth their while – the opportunity costs are too great);
  • Knowledge of the relevant department and protocol for approaching pots of funding or resources are often kept esoteric, and therefore outside of professional communities of practice there is no knowledge of the support available (for example, small businesses can access research and development tax credits but are often unaware that their work is viable for these awards).

Through encountering the work of Ernesto Sirolli, a development worker who formulated the idea of ‘Enterprise Facilitators’, the project became aware that it had to work in such a way that individual social and educational trajectories were fostered rather than creating a one size fits all behaviour. This requires a flexibility which does not suit the stratified ways in which aid is given.

Imperfect information is a concept developed in political economy. Information is not equally known or accessible to all people in a society. Individuals rest somewhere on a spectrum of perfect and imperfect information. Taking this into consideration is vital if we are to appraise the reality of our social circumstance and attempt to create suitable models in which we can improve the connection which people have with the information they need to become socially involved, thus gaining all the benefits that come with being a part of a wider network and being able to extend these further into informal communities which ‘do not engage’.

Problems of scale

There are distinct problems of scale which must be discussed at a policy level, where those making and enacting the policy necessarily require becoming aware of the situational perspectives which can inform understanding the success or failures of active policy. This situational knowledge is missing from the discourse which surrounds such initiatives which aim to get local communities actively attempting to create the solutions to the problems which they are facing.
Often, and overwhelmingly, institutions only have the apparatus to listen to voices and perspectives which are already a part of their paradigm. This is a problem if we are to desire these noble organelles of society to function towards the ideals which they evolved from and towards. Information inequalities are at the centre of this, and the work of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum address these ideas in the Human Capabilities approach – or the Capabilities Approach as Nussbaum refers to it due to her expanding the definition to include those principals outside of the Human species as important to our collective.

Who is to speak up for the honey bee, humble frog or ladybird ? We must represent those without voices or opportunity in our society in such a way that they gain the chance to continue to enrich our landscapes and support our collective existence.

Who is to represent the person who has legal rights, but no representation in the legal system ? Who is to represent the person who has a need and right for information but cannot access the structures in society which are designed to make them replete with the knowledge which allows them to function as an integral part of a sustainable society and biosphere ? Who is to represent the person who cannot write but can offer an integral understanding of our society and world ?
These are some of the questions which are important in considering information inequalities. Harold Innes talks about Monopolies of Knowledge, and inspired Marshall McLuhan in his work which discusses the medium as the message. Without having access to the medium, there is no message which is recognised; people fall off the edge of that particular social landscape and must resort to alternative means to survive and contribute. This constitutes a extra-legal community in the thinking of Hernando De Soto, and he suggests it as a vital factor in the health of a modern economy. The access to a computer is now suggested as a vital element to affordable living, and yet in the community context we find these resources held behind a barrier which often limits key functionality such as social networks, financial methods of payment, even the ability to create a simple document.

The information divide is becoming increasingly stark in that employers – particularly corporate and multinational concerns – are requiring formal education qualifications which are unrealistic for the most basic of jobs such as data input or admin. Computer algorithms are now reading job applications prior to any personal interaction between employer and employee which traditionally might give rise to a situation where competency can be determined.

Creating Public Value by Mark H Moore

Social meeting spaces are disappearing, and narrowing in their remit, and networks are becoming fragmented due to this commercialisation or delimitation of the spaces. Mark H. Moore writes about this in his book Creating Public Value. Libraries are spaces which have many functions other than simply being a repository for books. They provide spaces where people can exist and co-exist, and thus obtain the benefits of sharing a social space. He describes how managers of public libraries must think about how they interpret the space as providing public value, and focuses on how they may be safe spaces for latch key children to inhabit.
Thinking about the inequalities in information which people encounter is increasingly important as it is a major component which defines the opportunities available to people. As Ragged University goes on, the responsibility to document these asymmetries moves more central to the work. In the UK there is now overall downward social mobility, decreasing valuations of individuals as people are professionally demarcated out of taking part in intellectual, cultural and economic activities. As a conceptual space, the project can act as a public archive for lost perspectives. If you have something to share on these matters, please write it up and share it on the website.