Archive for the ‘social determinants of health’ Category

Free access to British scientific research within two years

July 18, 2012

A promising trend?

Free access to British scientific research within two years

Radical shakeup of academic publishing will allow papers to be put online and be accessed by universities, firms and individuals

Ian Sample, science correspondent, Sunday 15 July 2012 19.53 BST

Professor Dame Janet Finch
Professor Dame Janet Finch’s recommendations on open access publishing prompted the government’s decision.

The government is to unveil controversial plans to make publicly funded scientific research immediately available for anyone to read for free by 2014, in the most radical shakeup of academic publishing since the invention of the internet.

Under the scheme, research papers that describe work paid for by the British taxpayer will be free online for universities, companies and individuals to use for any purpose, wherever they are in the world.

In an interview with the Guardian before Monday’s announcement David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said he expected a full transformation to the open approach over the next two years.

The move reflects a groundswell of support for “open access” publishing among academics who have long protested that journal publishers make large profits by locking research behind online paywalls. “If the taxpayer has paid for this research to happen, that work shouldn’t be put behind a paywall before a British citizen can read it,” Willetts said.

“This will take time to build up, but within a couple of years we should see this fully feeding through.”

He said he thought there would be “massive” economic benefits to making research open to everyone.

Though many academics will welcome the announcement, some scientists contacted by the Guardian were dismayed that the cost of the transition, which could reach £50m a year, must be covered by the existing science budget and that no new money would be found to fund the process. That could lead to less research and fewer valuable papers being published.

British universities now pay around £200m a year in subscription fees to journal publishers, but under the new scheme, authors will pay “article processing charges” (APCs) to have their papers peer reviewed, edited and made freely available online. The typical APC is around £2,000 per article.

Tensions between academics and the larger publishing companies have risen steeply in recent months as researchers have baulked at journal subscription charges their libraries were asked to pay.

More than 12,000 academics have boycotted the Dutch publisher Elsevier, in part of a broader campaign against the industry that has been called the “academic spring”.

The government’s decision is outlined in a formal response to recommendations made in a major report into open access publishing led by Professor Dame Janet Finch, a sociologist at Manchester University. Willetts said the government accepted all the proposals, except for a specific point on VAT that was under consideration at the Treasury.

Further impetus to open access is expected in coming days or weeks when the Higher Education Funding Council for England emphasises the need for research articles to be freely available when they are submitted for the Research Excellence Framework, which is used to determine how much research funding universities receive.

The Finch report strongly recommended so-called “gold” open access, which ensures the financial security of the journal publishers by essentially swapping their revenue from library budgets to science budgets. One alternative favoured by many academics, called “green” open access, allows researchers to make their papers freely available online after they have been accepted by journals. It is likely this would be fatal for publishers and also Britain’s learned societies, which survive through selling journal subscriptions.

“There is a genuine value in academic publishing which has to be reflected and we think that is the case for gold open access, which includes APCs,” Willetts told the Guardian. “There is a transitional cost to go through, but it’s overall of benefit to our research community and there’s general acceptance it’s the right thing to do.

“We accept that some of this cost will fall on the ring-fenced science budget, which is £4.6bn. In Finch’s highest estimation that will be 1% of the science budget going to pay for gold open access, at least before we get to a new steady state, when we hope competition will bring down author charges and universities will make savings as they don’t have to pay so much in journal subscriptions,” he added.

“The real economic impact is we are throwing open, to academics, researchers, businesses and lay people, all the high quality research that is publicly funded. I think there’s a massive net economic benefit here way beyond any £50m from the science budget,” Willetts said.

In making such a concerted move towards open access before other countries, Britain will be giving its research away free while still paying for access to articles from other countries.

Willetts said he hoped the EU would soon take the same path when it announced the next tranche of Horizon 2020 grants, which are available for projects that run from 2014. The US already makes research funded by its National Institutes of Health open access, and is expected to make more of its publicly funded research freely available online.

Professor Adam Tickell, pro-vice chancellor of research and knowledge transfer at Birmingham University, and a member of the Finch working group, said he was glad the government had endorsed the recommendations, but warned there was a danger of Britain losing research projects in the uncertain transition to open access publishing.

“If the EU and the US go in for open access in a big way, then we’ll move into this open access world with no doubt at all, and I strongly believe that in a decade that’s where we’ll be. But it’s the period of transition that’s the worry. The UK publishes only 6% of global research, and the rest will remain behind a paywall, so we’ll still have to pay for a subscription,” Tickell said.

“I am very concerned that there are not any additional funds to pay for the transition, because the costs will fall disproportionately on the research intensive universities. There isn’t the fat in the system that we can easily pay for that.” The costs would lead to “a reduction in research grants, or an effective charge on our income” he said.

Another consequence of the shift could be a “rationing” of research papers from universities as competition for funds to publish papers intensifies. This could be harmful, Tickell said. For example, a study that finds no beneficial effect of a drug might be seen as negative results and go unpublished, he said.

Stevan Harnad, professor of electronics and computer science at Southampton University, said the government was facing an expensive bill in supporting gold open access over the green open access model.

He said UK universities and research funders had been leading the world in the movement towards “green” open access that requires researchers to self-archive their journal articles on the web, and make them free for all.

“The Finch committee’s recommendations look superficially as if they are supporting open access, but in reality they are strongly biased in favour of the interests of the publishing industry over the interests of UK research,” he said.

“Instead of recommending that the UK build on its historic lead in providing cost-free green open access, the committee has recommended spending a great deal of extra money — scarce research money — to pay publishers for “gold open access publishing. If the Finch committee recommendations are heeded, as David Willetts now proposes, the UK will lose both its global lead in open access and a great deal of public money — and worldwide open access will be set back at least a decade,” he said.

© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.


ICTs for sustainability and equality: work-in-progress now available

June 15, 2012

still a lot of work and editing to do on this video, but here is a teaser

Stratfor Hacked – What’s the message?

December 26, 2011

In the world of hactivism, it seems one of the loudest messages was just sent. Stratfor data was apparently hacked. The message sent, although probably not what Occupiers, social activists, Arab uprising participants or UK rioters might necessarily celebrate, may be pleasing to them nonetheless.

The message seems clear – no one is immune. Privacy needs to be strengthened.

But that’s what the mainstream media would have the majority of people believe.

The more subtle message is that privacy – it’s very definition – needs to be re-examined.

All too often we hear the privacy commissioners, watchdogs and experts warning ‘consumers’ to be careful with their data – guard your security passwords, enable your security features, build security into your defaults. With the same messages for those who work in the world of data.

While that might be sound advice, it also works well to substantiate the status quo, where the wealthy have the means to protect themselves and protect their data from being compromised. They can hire the best (like Stratfor) for intelligence information. They can hire the best security and data control (oops, I mean ‘management’) companies. They can chase after and prosecute (someone) when their systems are compromised.

However, the average Joe or Jane sixpack can’t. Even if they could, the courts may soon be overwhelmed with too many cases dealing with privacy compromises.

This hacktivism demonstrates that even the best are not immune to having their data compromised. So can enhanced privacy be the answer? Not only is it proving increasingly challenging, it may also be obstructing progress.

The more profound message is that the ideas/values we might hold (such as privacy) need to be re-examined, re-considered, re-thought and re-worked. 21st century realities couldn’t be sending a louder message.

But by fixating on the symptom – privacy – the result is twofold: 1) the average person remains in a compromising position, subject to the limited (in comparison to the potential of ICTs) laws and courts to protect them or overstep their privacy in doing so; and 2) the concept of individualism (and other values that support the global status quo – individual rights, property rights, ownership, meritocracy, competition and proprietary rights, for example) – is being strengthened and substantiated.

Privacy, historically defined, is simply another agent used to maintain the wealth of the wealthy and the power of the powerful through the top-down management of society.

It’s more than privacy and Robin Hoods. The real message is deeper and more substantial: it demonstrates that the rigid hierarchies that control the world are beginning to snap under the relentless distributive empowering nature of ICTs.

In a world where profit can be made, and competition demands privacy to conceal inequalities, we might just need to re-consider our goals and values as a global society, and the roles of privacy in achieving, or obstructing, those goals.

Where ICTs can radically redefine sustainability and equality through entirely transformed governance and management regimes, historical ideas of privacy only stand in the way in the same ways our constructed ideologies of competition, individualism, capitalist free markets and others impede progress.

This hactivism isn’t really about privacy; it’s about antiquated ideologies being tossed around grasping for purchase in the eddies of an emerging 21st century societal transformation.

Oh Canada… Our Bought & Sold Land!!

December 12, 2011

Here’s a great video about our global monetary system (if you want more details, have a look at The Money Masters, or the Creature from Jekyll Island in book or video formats).

Although this video is based on the Canadian experience and includes discussion about the political aspects of the system, it’s very relevant to the role of ICTs in sustainability.

I explore ICTs, money and financial markets in detail in Computing? (mostly chapter 8), and examine the subsequent implications for people, communities and the environment.

It’s not too difficult to imagine some of the implications in a wired, mobile, connected, always on world that uses complex mathematical computer algorithms for investment purposes and multi-media formats for distributing information.

British Roits, ICTs and Neoliberalism – A Cure Worse than the Cause… or Disaster Capitalism?

August 10, 2011

Developments in the London riots of summer 2011 are increasingly shifting towards the uncomfortable, confrontational and divisive as authorities increasingly call for and pursue a stronger police presence, draw on technology to identify rioters, and utilise digital communications as weapons to discourage rioters. In short, these riots are igniting a new wave of structural divisions – class warfare through emerging technology. But there might just be more to it.

The actions of authorities are shifting the state towards an Orwellian police state, one in which vigilante justice is justified (if you’re on the right side of the corporate media empire), and one where ‘big brother’ is ever so desperately trying to maintain rigid control of a population that such rigid controls are dividing in the first place.

One might say that social media is helping fuel the flames of these riots. One might even point the finger at social media and ICTs in their roles to provide both bad with the good. But that’s really not the issue here.

Authorities are using technology – in increasingly desperate attempts – to produce tighter control over the actions of people (albeit unnecessarily violent, irresponsible and destructive in this case). While this is discussed in the book in terms of how technology is used to generate social conformity, such a perspective might only offer a brief glimpse of a more important phenomenon: inequality.

Technology is being used widely around the world to tumble existing relations of social power and very unequal wealth distribution. It’s also being used to control society, and affect the decisions and actions people make. Billions of people (including some involved in the unrest in Britain) are using technology in the former role; governments and other decision makers largely continue to use technology in the latter role.

When it comes to inequality, as Christian Fuchs notes, are those rioting the only at fault group?

Unequal societies simply are not sustainable. This is why chapter 7 – Pathological Tendencies: The Health Link – was included in the book. Unequal societies harm everyone, while those at the bottom suffer most. Unequal societies encourage the Joneses to get ahead, or each individual to get ahead of the Joneses. They will disintegrate… they will rebel… they will use the tools and options at their disposal to seek equality and fairness just as those in power will use the (typically far more substantive) tools and options at their disposal to maintain the illusion of fairness and equality.

Yet ICTs enable a more distributed, non-hierarchical, cooperative, sharing world. “Protestors”, “rioters”, “dissenters”, “trouble-makers”, what ever you call them, they’re using these new technologies to galvanize – not define – a new world. One which is equal, egalitarian and sustainable. One which is fluid, dynamic, and void of leadership in the prevailing sense. Welcome to the new world. This is sustainability in the making. Have we reached a tipping point – that all critical point of inflection?

Our leaders, on the other hand, are using the same new tools along with many of the old tools to maintain the past – the rigid, inflexible, hierarchical control structures of power and wealth. Why do the authorities entrench the competitive structurally hierarchical ideologies? Moreover, why does this happen precisely when the opportunity to do away with class divisions, social inequities, unsustainable consumerism and economic growth, and ideologies supported by neoliberal policies is so loudly presented?

That’s not too dissimilar from promoting competition through cooperation. It does, however, have a bursting sense of urgency.

And that might just be the answer. There is a sense of urgency – for the wealthy and powerful elite – with financial foundations crumbling, social media distributing democracies, and ecological and health crises spiraling out of control, to try and maintain the prevailing control hierarchies, the conventional illusions, the sense that all we need do is make minor adjustments to the torque of events, while confronted by social transformations that remain unrecognised by the masses yet threatening to the elite.

But try telling that to those affected in their own communities, the politicians, or the rioters.

development?…or just more growth?

August 5, 2011

Very shortly after making the previous post about health, this article in pcworld was brought to my attention. It describes the risks confronting us as 70% of the planet enters into the Internet.

It suggests:

“That’s a very good thing, not just for all those coming on board at last–who will suddenly find themselves faced with a new wealth of opportunities–but also for us in the business world, by virtue of the dramatically increased numbers of potential customers and markets.”

…”But the opportunities will be there, not just for advertising and communication but for new types of products and services as well. This would be a good time to start thinking about what your company will do with this fresh new world of possibilities.”

It couldn’t be more clearly stated than that: the Internet, and cheap wireless connectivity, is largely viewed – in the conventional business world – as an opportunity to increase sales and profits. While new consumers will be created in the billions, well,… new consumers will be created in the billions. It’s just not possible to see any upside of this “development.”

This raises enormous and controversial questions about the ecological (and social!) sustainability of these networks. Raising all boats has proven disastrous (see also this). Instead we need to find better ways to redistribute wealth.

Unless pcworld hasn’t been paying attention the last few weeks, markets and growth are dead – we can have no more. If these deployments make us realise that and enable the possibilities of a new future…Fantastic! If they allow us only to clutch onto the past – watch our ecological footprints swell.

This is exactly how the Internet should not be used, and illustrates the potential health risks – and to tie into the previous post about health and electromagnetic fields – notwithstanding the far less significant impacts derived from wireless electromagnetic fields.

The Smart Grid – perhaps not so healthy an idea…

July 31, 2011

…but the devil is in the details.

The Smart Grid has been described as an:

“automated, widely distributed energy delivery network…characterized by a two-way flow of electricity and information [that] will be capable of monitoring everything from power plants to customer preferences to individual appliances. It incorporates into the grid the benefits of distributed computing and communications to deliver real-time information and enable the near-instantaneous balance of supply and demand at the device level.”

There are many different ways to interpret and develop a smart grid.

This interesting article provides an important view. Mostly, it talks about the potential direct health risks from the electromagnetic fields generated by smart meters and, more generally, wireless connectivity. It also suggests possible political corruption linked to the development of smart grid activities in the United States, and raises the thorny issues of privacy and security derived from wireless connectivity and smart – or remote – control of appliances and equipment.

Very important issues indeed. It was brought to my attention by one of the authors of Cancer: 101 Solutions – a very insightful and practical guide on how we can all reduce our exposures to cancer risks in our environment.

This is a great article, but we must be cautious of the deflection it generates (akin to what Dennis Raphael terms ‘random medical gobbledygook’ when health information that fixates on the individual causes of health risks ignore the underlying social settings – social health determinants – responsible for that diseased state). As I write in Computing Or Way to Paradise? in the chapter on health (page 149):

“It should be apparent that we have not discussed in this chapter the direct health effects of ICTs. Although there is a growing body of evidence indicating health impacts from ICTs as a result of ergonomic, chemical, electromagnetic and other possible causes (including the risks derived from the inattentiveness to surrounding environments during their use), this approach diverts attention toward the individual. The assumption is that if you limit or avoid use of or exposure to a specific product, your chances of contracting certain diseased states is reduced.”

The problems outlined in the above article do just that while stumbling around the social determinants of health with privacy and political issues. While the potential for direct health impacts are not necessarily trivial, they pale in comparison to the social and cultural implications from the ‘smart grid.’

A perfect example is as the authors cite: “those who stand to make enormous profits.”

I find this problem all too common. In fact, the previous blog posts here and here about the adoption of ICTs for collaboration illustrates how our default mode tends to promote business as usual (BAU) when adopting ICTs, despite their enormous potential for so much more. BAU is fundamentally antithetical to what the theories developed in ‘Computing Our Way to Paradise‘ suggest.

The book draws extensively on the example of the smart grid and uses this as an underlying theme throughout. Repeatedly it is shown how technological determinism and BAU (growth, competition, individualism, hierarchical control, etc.) continues unabated, even amongst those who promote the novelty of ICTs. This approach is also very evident in the renewable energy and green economy sectors.

The points on privacy and security in that same above article are, however, somewhat more misguided. The expectation that smart appliances will ‘be controlled’ by us and the utility companies ignores the self-regulatory nature of the ‘SMART’ grid. But that does raise some thorny issues about privacy, suggesting, not greater risks, but instead a redefinition of privacy, which that article would have benefited greatly from by exploring further. That said, you certainly won’t hear any talk of re-defining privacy from federal privacy commissioners or any other privacy watchdogs however.

As for the vampire loads the article discusses, no proponents have provided information about this, although I suspect, like tobacco companies, many have thought about the undesirable consequences from use of these technologies. However, there have been a couple studies to consider the energy demands of such smart technologies. Some good background can be found here and here. The average benchmark identified is an increase of 30% in household electrical demand for the smart home.

The article also discusses the potential for political corruption and the ‘control’ of smart grid technologies, and the respective safety, privacy and security issues. But as I illustrate in this post, control will not originate from hierarchical governance structures.

Which, demonstrates why the egalitarian re-distribution of wealth and power is so essential, and how it might already be happening, and why we need to re-define privacy.

Indeed, this will undoubtedly generate a ‘boost’ to ensure the social determinants of health are inherently included in social and economic development in the future. From the authors of The Spirit Level:

“Action on climate change is hampered by the view that reducing carbon emissions will involve a sacrifice in living standards. But Richard Wilkinson, Kate Pickett, and Roberto De Vogli argue that greater equality will not only help achieve sustainability but also enhance the real quality of life”

A competitive, market-based, growth-obsessed, global society controlled by hierarchical governance and power structures and unimaginable wealth disparities simply cannot be equitable or egalitarian. Moreover, it harms our health and well-being. Why would, at this pivotal moment in history, we want to model an emerging smart grid on such an approach?

So, unless, it seems, we change our ways, and the way we interpret, apply, and adapt ICTs, we’re headed on a crash collision with ecological and social realities. So long as society believes we can grow our way out of this problem using the same hierarchical control structures, and competitive ideologies that continue to polarize and fragment societies around the globe – and only address the individual health impacts – our consumption footprints will continue to exceed the planets capacity to deal with them, and the social and political wealth disparities will disintegrate social cohesion. And therein lies the real health impacts.

In other words, the smart grid needs to reflect the distributive nature of renewable energy technologies (both production and consumption) and ICTs, and it requires control abilities that supersede hierarchical control and management structures. Neither of which are predominantly present to date in the development of the smart grid.

Can Cooperation be Created Through Competition?

September 30, 2010

There seems to be a disconnect between where the Internet is – or at least could be – taking us, and where many actors are directing it. I’d like to use the CBC’s Spark program to illustrate this disconnect.

CBC’s SPARK program always has interesting items, and the feature on micro-volunteering is no exception. Spark’s interview on micro-volunteering was especially brilliant in the manner the shows host, Nora Young, made Jacob Colker squirm trying to rationalise and justify his business model that extracts profits from volunteers at corporations (the actual question appears at 6:43).

Companies (such as The Extraordinaries) exploit the financial commitments of corporate CSR departments to sell a service, not too unlike how the corporations themselves exploit consumers with their CSR departments for marketing and sales gains. There’s much brilliance in that path of enquiry.

On the other hand, could (micro-)volunteering (a cooperative, egalitarian behaviour) possibly gain sufficient traction as a viable social movement towards volunteering in the aggregate?

What is becoming evident is that this volunteer movement – as part of a larger social movement facilitated by ICTs – may actually be happening, albeit spontaneously.

Before I get into details, lets consider another related Spark story which further illustrates this disconnect between where the Internet could take us and where it’s being directed.

In this other more recent Spark interview, Don Tapscott discussed wikinomics – using the web to mobilise distributive communications networks. Nice idea, yet again, and it distills the cooperative distributed nature of ICTs.

Curiously, and quite paradoxically, both these examples employ the same anachronistic models that each suggests is an impediment to the future unleashed by ICTs.

In Don Tapscott’s case, that anachronism would be the top-down management model (or at least a hierarchical framework – for instance, corporate stock holder-CEO-management-employee) of power and control to disperse distributive communications. In particular, during the conversation, Don speaks about customised learning, which to me seems impeded by relying on a teacher (where the teacher designs a custom learning module) – that’s not customised learning; it’s customised teaching. Sure you can design a company to profit from this arrangement, but does that arrangement really reflect the value of distributive communications? Similarly, the concept of new leaders (in the business world) employing distributed communications completely misses the point about distributed power sharing and egalitarianism (which, by definition, must exclude leaders and winners – the idea of someone getting ahead of, or having vested control over others).

In Jacob Colker’s case, he speaks about (micro-)volunteering (a sharing, egalitarian form of behaviour) to satisfy human needs by using the competitive individualistic framework of markets and corporations.

[There is an underlying theme which I analyse in the book, but will not get into here.]

Does it make sense to try and ‘create’ egalitarian, cooperative sharing behaviour (evident in volunteering and distributed communications) through and within a framework that encourages and rewards competitive, individualistic behaviour?

Let’s consider Jeremy Rifkins’ Empathic Civilization which sounds incredibly familiar to Don Tapscott’s assertions in the Spark interview – the observations that our historically successful institutions have stalled, the interdependence of ICTs (everything), the multiple communications pathways that ICTs unleash, the ideas of massive social change, distributed collaboration (Rifkin uses ‘distributed capitalism’), and so on.

Rifkin suggests this emerging empathic civilisation will be constructed on egalitariansim and cooperation to propel a new wave of economic growth. Similarly, Don Tapscott suggests new collaborative wikinomics to propel economic activity and growth, and Jacob Colkers has tapped the ability to profit from volunteers.

Enormous concerns of any such new wave of economic growth – inherent in the existing global competitive individualistic framework – are its huge ecological and social costs (see ecological footprint analyses, sustainable consumption literature, kuznets curves research, genuine progress indicators, etc., etc., etc.)

Moreover, while Rifkin, Colker and Tapscott, among many others, all espouse laudable features of a future we all need, their models continue to resort to the existing (anachronistic) global economic institutions (constructed on individualism, competition, and growth – all quite contrary to each authors’ purported laudable ideals of cooperation, sharing and egalitarianism, not to mention, perhaps, sustainability) to enable their desired outcome.

Despite the contradiction of using competition to generate cooperation, all these ideas envision the intervention in existing social institutions through smarter control and the top down management of existing power and control structures – exactly what the Final Report on the August 14th Blackout in the United States and Canada also recommended.

Wouldn’t such an approach create a fundamental contradiction between goals, methods and outcomes? Does it make sense to plan and design a (collaborative/egalitarian) phenomenon through top-down hierarchically controlled (competitive/individualistic) management structures, which reflect existing (inherently socially divisive) power and wealth structures?

Unlike a controlled and managed future (to be achieved as Don Tapscott stated in his Spark interview) to elicit profits and economic growth, the global future is self-emerging through the complex realities liberated by ICTs, and that future seems to be egalitarian, cooperative, and sharing in nature. Yet none of these examples appear to recognise that.

Perhaps the best description of this emerging awareness/consciousness is provided by John Livingstone’s higher levels of ecological awareness (Rogue Primate).

There appears little doubt that an egalitarian cooperative global society is emerging and will likely contribute to the transformation of human society. Should we try to pre-define it’s goals and outcomes, and the method to achieve those in advance based on our old systems of provisioning? More importantly, should we be trying to manipulate, plan, control and manage it’s structure based on old ideologies? Could we, even with all our smart technologies, manipulate and control something so fluid, complex and unpredictable? Most of us are so entrenched and vested in existing systems and institutions of provisioning and our prevailing worldview that we simply fail to see the potential opportunities…and risks.

Which really is the point as this may become a real challenge: an old incompetent vision (based on sunsetting growth and power ideologies) for ICTs and the smart grid seem to be accelerating us toward a destination we haven’t yet even debated (say for arguments sake, continued economic growth), let alone agreed upon, as a global society. The result: we (society) are struggling to create something under a global framework (say for arguments sake again, economic growth built on competition and individualism) quite contrary to what is spontaneously self-emerging through ICTs (sustainability based on cooperation and sharing).

That posits a fundamental conflict between where the web/ICTs are headed, and where we’re trying to manipulate them. The question remains: will the self-organising features of this transformation ensure that desired egalitarian/cooperative society, or will we need to consciously intervene in prevailing social structures to ensure this outcome?

Or, perhaps more importantly, are we actually working against this emerging egalitarian structure by virtue of the worldviews and institutions we continue to cling to?

This is your brain on computers…

June 8, 2010

Yet most commentary can’t get beyond the individual (random [medical] gobbledeegook) aspect. Why don’t we try something completely different and give it a try.

As critical as this article (Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price) suggests the implications may be from multitasking, especially using multiple electronic devices and applications, it still emphasizes the individual effect.

The social and societal effects are utterly ignored.

The social determinants of health identifies the critical role of inequalities that exist across societies in determining population health states. It matters less how wealthy a nation, region, or state is than how that wealth is distributed between the people of that area.

The role of ICTs in generating inequalities in health can be both simple and profound. The basic dichotomy between haves and have nots – the digital divide – is a good example of the ‘simple’. The digital divide increasingly determines who can and cannot access government services, educational opportunities, entertainment, and employment options. To resolve this challenge, many policies look to raising the tide (as similar to economic growth) in order to provide greater access for all to digital technologies. [While we now know this approach is ineffectual, the constant global mantra remains economic growth/invest more in digital technologies at any and all cost.] The Canadian Community Access Program is a good example of this approach. Another good example in Canada is the recent call by the Auditor General of Canada for massive investments in the federal governments aging information technology systems.

While such approaches may minimise one aspect of the barriers people encounter to access digital technologies (and greater social participation), there are many other barriers, and many issues – such as the role of work in society, or the value and goals of IT – that remain unquestioned.

At a more profound level, the potential role, for ICTs to generate and firmly imbue enormous social inequalities can be incredible. The digital divide, in fact, is a phenomenon of the growing inequalities across and within nations. This role of ICTs in generating even greater inequalities should be alarming.

ICTs operate on our social fabric in remarkably complex ways. One of these is to firmly establish powerful ideologies of market derived (economic) growth across all segments of society. In so doing, ICTs unleash a potent force that is now sweeping the globe. That force literally compels actors to engage in socially destructive actions (such as those that generate competitive inequalities), despite their apparent social benefits and genuinely compassionate intent (for example, see the Community Access Program [there are literally hundreds of similar programs operating in developing nations]). Note that this response is also very evident in the environment movement where we see, for example, fascinating if not perplexing appeals for ‘green growth.’

As an increasing number of actors connect to ICTs within this global social environment, they become instruments of market approaches, substantiating and strengthening the role of markets and growth in our everyday life. From the patterns and communications (emails, tweets, chats, calls, blogs, websites, etc.) of financial investing, to the constructed dialogue on consumer practices which place the consumer – and consumption – as a central actor in modern economies and societies, these activities serve only to strengthen prevailing inequalities and make micro-adjustments to the accepted ideological torque of the day.

Now if we consider the combined effect on societies from the “rewiring of human brains” (as the above article suggests) and social determining effects of ICTs, the urgency to address and confront these challenges becomes paramount.

However, if we transform those activities, the potential power of ICTs to evolve a new, better, more sustainable, caring and ecological civilisation are astronomical.

So, the individual health consequences of ICTs – multitasking – whether cancer from cell phones or the effects on mental health from their excessive use – pale in comparison to the ways ICTs affect the social determinants of health in our emerging global social fabric.

From the book: “ICTs are accelerating the global free flow of capital…” through an emergent “group-consciousness.”

But don’t panic! If ICTs can operate to generate such an effect, phenomenon – gestalt – our chosen policies and activities can transform its purpose. If our policy and decision makers can realise this, and have the will to act upon it, ICTs hold enormous potential to transform the current trajectory of social inequalities and ecological destruction.

But to understand these effects and potential benefits, you’ll have to read the book, because I simply can’t do them justice in a short blog.

inclement weather

March 16, 2010

There’s a lot of talk in Canada right now over the reduction of a program that helps ensure Internet access for all users.

The program in question – the Community Access Program – sounds innocuous enough.

The Program is designed to provide “affordable access to the Internet in places like schools, community centres and libraries.”

Certainly as a political decision, coming from the far right, the Harper government should have supported this program whole heartedly. After all, it helps create work and accordingly instills a strong sense of class divisions, and employs the educational system (one could argue transforms the educational system) to more rigidly control the grading and streaming of students to a competitive labour force. The program helps emphasize meritocracy and the individualisation of commodification. Values, one would expect, which are near and dear to a right winger.

The CAP seems logical enough: provide social funding to improve access to digitally dividing technologies. But could this be simply creating a dependence? How valuable is that dependence? What are the long term social costs and ecological impacts of this dependence? And does this approach avoid more thorny – albeit more important – fundamental questions of class social structures?

In one manner, the CAP has the social determinants of health at heart. In another, the CAP strengthens the divisions so fundamental to class structured societies that are endemic to unhealthy populations, despite – or perhaps due to – it’s ability to foster a strong work ethic.