People, Power and Tech

30 Apr 2018 | Written by Adam Micklethwaite


Last week doteveryone launched their second People, Power and Tech report, focusing on digital understanding. This followed their first report in the series which looked at public attitudes to technology across the UK.

It's a landmark report, for the first time benchmarking UK adults' understanding of digital and how it affects our lives. And it comes at exactly the right time. Evidence, such as from the Lloyds Banking Group Consumer Digital Index, suggests that levels of trust in tech have fallen in recent years and continue to fall, with particular resistance to digital amongst the close to 5 million adults who are still offline. Perhaps reflecting this, the current spotlight on Facebook heralds a turning of the tide in public debate about responsible tech.

Against this backdrop of public interest and discussion, People, Power and Tech pulls our relationship with digital into the spotlight and provides a platform for debate and action. The report is timely and hugely relevant.

Based on a survey of 2,000 people online and 500 people by phone, underpinned by focus groups, the report identifies five 'blindspots' in our understanding of digital and how it shapes our lives:

  • How adverts target you - 45% of those surveyed are unaware information they enter on websites and social media can help target ads
  • How your personal information is collected - 83% are unaware information can be collected about them that other people have shared
  • How prices can vary - 47% of people haven't seen prices change when they repeatedly search for an item or noticed friends or family seeing a different price for the same service
  • Where your news comes from - 62% don't realise their social networks can affect the news they see
  • How products and services make money - 24% don't know how tech companies make money

Building on these findings, the report makes three headline recommendations:

  1. New codes of practice for design and consent in the technology industry, so that products and services do the hard work to be understandable
  2. A central, trusted and independent source of information with clear, up to date plain English explanations of the key aspects of digital understanding
  3. Public engagement to support digital understanding at all levels of society - not just for children and with a specific focus on digital leadership for public institutions

It also sets out a proposed new model that defines what digital understanding means for people in practical ways that they can recognise in their own lives. The definition is split into for key roles: individual, consumer, worker and member of society; and for each role doteveryone have defined different levels of understanding: aware, discovering, and questioning.

As doteveryone said at the launch, the publication of People, Power and Tech is the start of a process of debate and change. The opportunity to build a stronger focus on digital understanding into inclusion and education programmes is important; the focus on reinforcing the responsibility of the tech sector equally so. But there is an even broader context: drawing on this and other work, we have an opportunity to rebase our relationship with tech to build in greater awareness of, and protection from the risks it poses whilst maintaining the benefits it offers.

A range of projects are doing important and related work in this space: a new proposal for harm reduction in social media commissioned by the Carnegie UK Trust, the Government's work on a Digital Charter, a project focusing on data privacy from the Corsham Institute, and the latest Ofcom Adults' Media Use and Attitudes report 2018 with findings that support those in doteveryone's report. Bringing this work together is an urgent and essential task.

At Good Things Foundation we believe in the power of digital to transform lives, and the social imperative to help those who have been left behind. So at the launch of People, Power and Tech I was delighted to be asked to say a few words about some new experimental work we're taking forward that will contribute to the debate.

In a previous post I outlined our interest in how people adapt to digital technology. Technology has changed our environment and will continue to do so, and like all animals we adapt to changes in our environment by changing our behaviour.

These behaviours are the micro-attitudes and micro-aptitudes we display unconsciously as we build our relationship with digital: from the first place we go to find information online to the number of times we check our devices. As well as helping us use digital technology, they also influence our confidence, capability and resilience in a digital world - and ultimately our wellbeing.

At Good Things we want to explore digitally adaptive behaviours, and the process of digital inclusion - helping people engage with technology for the first time, or deepen their engagement - gives us a vehicle to see how these behaviours develop.

We're interested in two key questions:

  1. How can we help the people who need the greatest help? As well as benefits, technology also creates significant risks, and those who are offline or have low digital skills - as many as 5m and 11m people respectively - are arguably more susceptible to these risks.
  2. What can digital inclusion tell us about the development of digitally adaptive behaviours? By seeing how digitally excluded people build strategies for engaging with digital technology, we can learn more about how adaptation to digital happens for everyone.

Leading on from this, there are even bigger issues to explore, all of which play into the broader debate about digital and society. What is the future of digital inclusion? Does the accelerating change in tech mean that all of us will need digital inclusion support in the future? And what are the long term implications of tech changing our environment: are things getting better, or worse, or staying about the same?

I'm delighted that we'll be partnering with Demos to explore these issues. By working with Online Centres and the people they help, we want to test how digital inclusion interventions affect the development of digitally adaptive behaviour. We'll use concepts like adaptive problem solving to measure how people make use of technology, and will look at both offline and online behaviour to develop a richer picture of how people build effective relationships with digital. Ultimately, we're interested in how digital can be a force for good, helping us maximise our wellbeing as we move through life.

We strongly welcome doteveryone's new report, and look forward to contributing to the debate as it moves forward from here.