UK Digital Poverty Evidence Review 2022

Over the last year, I’ve researched and written the 2022 UK Digital Poverty Evidence Review for the Digital Poverty Alliance, which launched yesterday in the House of Lords.

The report synthesises a great deal of important work on digital exclusion and poverty, and it was impossible to cite everything or give each topic as much space as it probably deserved (you surely wouldn’t read a 2000-page report – who would?!). But I’m a fan of “showing your work,” so I’m making the list of references I consulted available for anyone who wants to dig even more deeply into the research behind the report (as a Zotero library).

The report spotlights three big-picture myths and three game-changing shifts that we need to address to tackle digital poverty in the pervasively digitised world of 2022. These are:

Big picture myths

The kids are alright

There are important demographic divides between those who are online with high levels of skills, and those who are offline with low levels of skills. On the whole, people over the age of 65 are more likely to be offline. This rather coarse statistic has given rise to the myth that young people are naturally “digital natives”: having grown up with technology, they will acquire the necessary digital capabilities simply through high exposure. The evidence increasingly refutes this assumption, with factors such as employment status, education, disability, income, and self-confidence cutting across age and impacting people’s level of exclusion. Often, unequal access to technology is a feature of schooling, with a growing inequity between affluent schools with more access to and choice about technology, and less well-resourced schools with more limited access and choices. As a result, technology provision in education is deepening existing differences in life chances.

Access is access

In the early days of digital divide research and policy, digital inequality was mainly thought of
as the gap between those who have internet access and those who do not. This was called
the “first-level digital divide,” and it has been thoroughly challenged by decades of further evidence showing that there are second- and third-level divides in skills, usage, and outcomes. Still today, digital inclusion is often treated like a switch that can be flipped on once and stays on for life. However, evidence shows that digital inclusion is a process rather than an event. Differences in quality, reliability, location, and experiences of access all influence whether an individual will be able to make the most of the digital world.

Digital exclusion will diminish or disappear over time without intervention

There is a common misconception that time will solve three of the biggest factors in digital exclusion in the UK – exposure, motivation, and confidence. The logic goes that the more people have to do online, the more people will spend time online, and the better acquainted with the digital world they will become. However, the digital divide has remained a problem for digitising societies since the beginning of the digital revolution – lower prices for hardware, more devices, and widespread connectivity have not solved digital exclusion. This is because digital inclusion is relative, the benchmarks are always changing as technology changes, and the solutions depend on social, political and technical responses to inequality. Ultimately, only concerted top-down and bottom-up efforts to address deep-rooted societal inequalities will help make progress on digital poverty. This dynamic approach demands thinking big and small at the same time, and putting the needs of people first.

Game-changing shifts

Digital is not a separate domain, sector, or agenda

In our increasingly digitised world, the division between online and offline has become completely blurred. One of the tensions in dealing with digital poverty is keeping the spotlight on digital and its contribution to disadvantage, while also stressing that digital is pervasive and cannot be treated as a separate issue or programme. A focus on digital poverty, like the one taken in this report, could be misconstrued to suggest that “digital” constitutes its own domain, separate or on top of other domains of social life, such as education or work. The reality is that digital is embedded in all domains. In the words of Ofcom Chief Executive Dame Melanie Dawes, digital is not a separate sector.

The digitally excluded are still digital citizens

Everyone is part of a digital society — whether they are online or not. “Datafication” is the process by which information about people is turned into data that can be processed by computers,32 and this occurs behind the scenes, whether the datafied person is digitally literate or not. It is important to recognise how the digital world affects everyone – even people who are not actively online or have long periods of digital absence33 – especially as more of our everyday lives are digitised through the Internet of Things and Smart Cities, for example.

The digital world can be unfair by design

A growing body of literature has emerged on the issue of algorithmic bias34 and automated discrimination. Tackling the determinants of digital poverty will entail an awareness of the assumptions that go into the design and deployment of technology and how these can replicate and deepen certain inequalities and exclusions. Digital poverty is not just about access to connection and devices; it is also about ensuring the digitised, algorithmic systems do not perpetuate, deepen, or create new disadvantages for people.36 The automation of many processes and services and the invisibility of algorithmic “decisions” can create a false impression that these decisions are objective and neutral. When frontline staff in essential services rely on these outputs, it can deepen inequalities faced by already disadvantaged groups. In addition, the design of platforms and technologies can actively exclude, mislead, or disadvantage certain users. For example, websites that have not been designed to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) exclude assistive technology users and other disabled users.

The evidence also pointed to several key recommendations:

Digital poverty does not respect sector siloes, and neither should the recommendations
for tackling it
. These recommendations have implications for all sectors – Government, local authorities, industry, the private sector, the third sector, and academia or the research sector. They have also gone on to inform five specific Policy Principles, developed in consultation with the Digital Poverty Alliance community to take the agenda forward. These recommendations and principles will contribute to the Digital Poverty Alliance’s forthcoming National Delivery Plan.

  • Affordable and sustainable inclusion: Digital inclusion must be made more affordable and sustainable through both stop-gap digital inclusion initiatives, such as device distribution, and long-term community investment that recognises digital inclusion as dependent on broader (non-digital) community resilience and resources.
  • Inclusive and accessible design: Technologies, platforms, and digital services must be designed to be safe, inclusive, accessible and privacy-protecting from the outset, through participatory design – involving affected communities in the design of technologies that affect their lives – and through effective and enforceable regulation.
  • People-centred and community-embedded interventions: Digital inclusion policy, interventions, and research need to meet people where they already are by fostering and utilising existing community-based, formal, and informal spaces for inclusion, and focusing on helping people meet their own goals and objectives.
  • Skills to engage and empower: The skills needed to tackle today’s pervasive and complex digital world are more than technical competencies, like typing and internet searching. Digital literacy must treat digital as part of civic life, encompassing critical thinking and awareness of data rights, privacy, and consent.
  • Support for the whole journey: Digital inclusion needs to accommodate a shifting and increasingly complex digital landscape by supporting people throughout their entire lives and meeting them where they are in that journey – in school, on the job, through the health and care system, and more. Life circumstances and social context are important contributors to digital poverty, so this requires a focus on the offline, social dynamics of disadvantage.
  • Building the evidence base: Although a lot of research on digital exclusion and poverty exists, there are some significant gaps. Research needs to consider digital poverty in relation to social, economic, political, and health inequality, and vice versa – these issues cannot remain siloed. Data on digital poverty needs to be both quantitative (statistical) and qualitative (interview, observation, and lived experience-based), and it needs to be representative, comparable, longitudinal, and freely available to the public and research community.

And these recommendations went on to inform the Digital Poverty Alliance’s Five Policy Principles:

Policy Principle 1: Digital is a basic right. Digital is now an essential utility – and access to it should be treated as such.

Policy Principle 2: Accessing key public services online, like social security and healthcare, must be simple, safe, and meet everyone’s needs.

Policy Principle 3: Digital should fit into people’s lives, not be an additional burden — particularly the most disadvantaged.

Policy Principle 4: Digital skills should be fundamental to education and training throughout life. Support must be provided to trusted intermediaries who have a key role in providing access to digital.

Policy Principle 5: There must be cross-sector efforts to provide free and open evidence on digital exclusion.

Queer Rural Connections

When my friend and project partner, Tim Allsop, approached me with a concept for a research, film, and theatre exploration of queer rural life, I was thrilled. Tim, himself, comes from a rural upbringing and had begun reflecting creatively on the impact of that context on his identity and understanding of queerness – which he explores in a beautiful series of essays on Medium.

We decided to combine ethnographic and oral history interview techniques with multi-media storytelling. Tim adapted our first set of interviews into a play (The Stars are Brighter Here), and we collaborated with videographer Suzy Shepherd and musician Conor Molloy to edit some of those interviews into a documentary film, which was selected this year for the BFI Flare Festival.

A transgender woman, Lauren, applies lipstick in a mirror in this still from the film Queer Rural Connections, which features the official BFI Flare Festival logo.

In this film, we meet interviewees who live in and around rural Suffolk and represent several different generations of LGBTQIA+ experiences and activism. They reflect on how being queer and rural has changed over time, a push and pull of connection and disconnection, as social progress has meant that queerness exists more openly in the countryside.

More on this project, and the film (including opportunities to view it) coming soon… watch this space. 🙂

Rethinking Digital Skills in the Era of Compulsory Computing: Methods, Measurement, Policy, and Theory

Around the world, digital platforms have become the first – or only – option for many everyday activities. The United Kingdom, for instance, is implementing a ‘digital-by-default’ e-government agenda, which has steadily digitized vital services such as taxes, pensions, and welfare. This pervasive digitization marks an important shift in the relationship between society and computing; people are compelled to use computers and the internet in order to accomplish the basic tasks. We suggest that this era of compulsory computing demands new ways of measuring and theorizing about digital skills, which remain a crucial dimension of the digital divide. In this article, we re-examine the theory and measurement of digital skills, making three contributions to understanding of how digital skills are encountered, acquired, and conceptualized. First, we introduce a new methodology to research skills: participant-observation of novices in the process of learning new skills along with interviews with the people who help them. Our ethnographically informed method leads us to a second contribution: a different theory of skills, which identifies three primary characteristics: (1) sequence, (2) simultaneity, and, most importantly, (3) path abstraction. Third, we argue that these characteristics suggest the need to change current ways skills are measured, and we also discuss the policy implications of this empirically informed theory.

The whole article is available open access: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1369118X.2021.1874475

Libraries on the Front Lines of the Digital Divide

Today, libraries provide essential access to digital equipment, services, and skills training. They are vital bridges across the digital divide. In this report, we present findings from our research in the Oxfordshire County Libraries, focused on two themes: (1) Exploring the day-to-day role libraries are playing in our digital world; (2) Understanding the lived experience of digital exclusion, through observations and data on library computer users and digital help seekers. 

Prologue

A young man approached the front desk hesitantly but with a smile. “Do you have phone chargers?” he asked.

Emilie, the staff member working on the front desk, couldn’t catch a break. In the 20 or 30 minutes I had been sitting at the front desk with her, there had been a steady stream of customers queuing with questions about books or printing. It was a weekday evening; people were coming in after work. I had recently switched my normal digital helping shift from afternoons to evenings because library staff had mentioned (on numerous occasions) that they desperately needed digital helpers after 5 PM.

Despite the rush, Emilie was consistently friendly and calm, working quickly and issuing direct instructions to keep the queue moving.

“Phone chargers? For customers? No, no, we don’t. There are outlets all over the library, though. You can use those,” she said.

“Oh, no,” the man said, “The thing is – I don’t have a charger. I need to charge my phone. I’m homeless, and I really just need to charge my phone for a bit.”

“Oh,” Emilie paused. “I see what you mean…”

“Do you have one?” he ventured. “For your phone? That I could borrow?”

This was the kind of front desk request that threw off the whole rhythm, stalling the queue. Over the time I had served as a digital helper, many library staff members had remarked on this: a lot of front desk requests need personalised attention that will take time, more than the minute or two that can usually be spared by staff, who are juggling multiple tasks.

I expected Emilie to shrug, maybe offer some sympathetic apology. But instead, she said, “Well, what kind of phone do you have?”

He showed her. “This kind.” He held up the bottom of the phone, exposing the connector.

“Ok, mine’s not like that,” she said. “But hang on. Can you just wait around here for a minute? I’m going to deal with these customers and then I’ll see if someone here has that phone.”

The man looked as surprised as I was. “Sure, yeah, no problem,” he said, and wandered off for a moment.

Emilie served the now fidgety cluster of customers that had massed around the front desk. When the queue receded, the man reappeared, hovering off to the side. Emilie caught sight of him, and said, “Can you give me your phone for a moment? I’ll ask around and come right back. Would that be OK?”

The man agreed without hesitation, and Emilie dashed off to the staff room, leaving the front desk to another staff member, who had just returned from shelving books.

Moments later, she returned. “I found one. Someone else has a phone like yours. I’m going to plug it in here, if that’s okay with you, and then when you want it back, you just come back here and ask for it,” she told him. “There’s always someone at the front desk,” she added.

The man was grateful; he thanked her and left the desk.

It was not your typical “digital help” session, I thought, but it was “digital help” nonetheless. How would I describe the service that Emilie just provided? Lending out personal phone chargers? It was not part of the library’s standard offering. But then again, it was – kind of.

After two years of volunteering as a digital helper in the Oxfordshire County Library, I had seen firsthand that “digital help” is hard to define, and it certainly is not confined to what we might consider to be “digital.” Widescale digitisation across all sectors and facets of everyday life has meant that digital needs are not isolated needs; and they are not merely about computers or internet connections – they are about being able to live an ordinary, well-rounded life.

Understanding digital exclusion in our digital age requires meeting digitally marginalised people where they are and glimpsing what everyday life looks like from their perspective. Libraries are a good (but certainly not the only) place to do this.

I started volunteering as a digital helper in my capacity as a private citizen, not as an academic researcher. I simply wanted to offer some hands-on support in an area that I worked on intellectually in my day job. But it quickly became apparent that digital exclusion didn’t look quite like what existing theory or policy on digital inequality or digital skills reflected. And surprisingly little research on digital literacy and skills had taken place in the real-life places, where digital exclusion is most visible and critical.

In a world that is digitising fast, libraries have become crucial bridges across the digital divide, whether or not they are prepared and adequately supported to play that role. From this vantage point, it is clear that dealing with the challenges of a persistent and pernicious digital divide means dealing with people as much as dealing with technology.

So, was Emilie offering digital help? Or just reacting to a personal need, on a human level?

Although this report is about digital inclusion, we would encourage you to resist drawing any strict boundaries around the “digital” as you read.

In what follows, we will demonstrate that the digital world – and therefore digital exclusion – is more complex than we might realise. Rather spuriously, the concept of a divide makes us think about digital versus non-digital, connected versus unconnected, literate versus illiterate, and other de-contextualised dichotomies that would treat digital inclusion as the reconciliation of an either/or. But the reality and the likely solutions really lie in the space between – where the social and technological meet.

Read the whole report >>

Refusing the Screen / Reclaiming Attention

The kingdoms of experience
In the precious wind they rot
While paupers change possessions
Each one wishing for what the other has got
And the princess and the prince
Discuss what’s real and what is not
It doesn’t matter inside the Gates of Eden
– Bob Dylan, Gates of Eden

Bear with me as I take you down a little rabbit hole with me, which I promise (well, I hope) can be useful to all of us, as we hole up our home offices. In England, we are currently immobilized by yet another COVID lockdown, and it’s as good a time as ever to reflect on work, life, and the digital world.

This e-mail is long, and that’s somewhat intentional. You don’t have to read it (that’s your choice)! But I hope that as I go along you will discover why I haven’t made this punchier — why I’ve arguably broken all the rules of good electronic communication. In exchange for tolerating my verbosity, I can assure you that I will not send out another newsletter like this in the near future. So, you have plenty of time to leave it, unread, in your inbox until you would like to return to it, if ever. It is not urgent. It is for a moment when you want to and can be slow about things.

***

In 2018 I became a volunteer “digital helper” at the Oxfordshire County Library, a public library in Oxford city centre. Many people probably walk past the library on a daily basis without noticing it is there. The spot is architecturally unremarkable — a generic glass-fronted building with a drab revolving door signaling conventional, institutional sterility. It could be a clinic. Or a post office. It just happens to be a library. In recent years, an ambitious renovation of Oxford’s central Westgate Shopping Centre demolished most of the library’s familiar retail surroundings, but somehow left the stalwart County Library in tact. As a result, the library — now more invisible than ever — remained, guarding the entrance to this gleaming commercial monument, tucked between an Urban Outfitters and a Comptoir Libanais. 

Inconspicuous municipal libraries like this one have gotten a bit more attention lately as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Such public spaces have gained a degree of notoriety as infection mitigation efforts have effectively annihilated them. It turns out that they were of greater importance to us as a society than we realized, always offering more than what was advertised on the label. In the case of libraries, it turned out they were more than book lenders; they also gave people a safe and quiet place to read, think, or pass time. And crucially for this pandemic moment, they provided free internet access, often to people with limited or no access to computers and the internet at home, or to people with limited digital skills who also need one-to-one assistance. 

That’s what I did as a digital helper — I helped people (lots of people) use the library computers and internet. My exact role varied depending on the needs of the library customer. But usually, I spent long hours showing people how to type a CV in Microsoft Word or set up an e-mail account for the first time. I would painstakingly talk them through each keypress, translating slowly and carefully the visual vernacular of the digital world. (“See that little square with a line sticking through it? That means ‘compose a message’. Click on that…”)

One day I was helping an elderly man who wanted to create an excel spreadsheet to collate all of his favorite poems and YouTube videos of instrumental music (it was a specific genre, but I can’t remember what it was now). A friend had shown him that you can find tons of poetry and music online, and he was simultaneously astonished and enchanted. He wanted to curate his own collection and share it. When I showed him that you can “drag-and-drop” images and URLs into the spreadsheet, he lit up with delight. “Show me again!” he said. But this time, when I dragged a photo (a public domain image of a poet) over to the spreadsheet, the screen froze. A small spinning wheel (the wheel of death — you know the one) appeared, and all we could do was wait. This happens sometimes on the library computers — the system can suddenly seize up, and customers complain about this clunky service all the time.

After a few seconds, I said to the man, “I’m really sorry, sometimes the computers here are so slow! Hopefully it won’t be long now, and then the photo we chose will appear right there in the spreadsheet.” The man was just gazing placidly at the screen, his hands folded loosely in his lap. He turned to me, smiling, and said, “What are you apologizing for? This is an absolute miracle! I don’t care how long we have to wait.”

I think about that digital help session frequently. I spend a lot of my day-to-day life feeling impatient, as though everything is urgent. If a website link takes even a few seconds too long to load, often I will just close it. I probably didn’t need to see it anyway. Or I can come back later (usually I don’t). I watch upload progress bars with irritation, wanting to send that e-mail attachment just a little bit faster. 

Maybe you’ve felt the same way from time to time? Maybe you weren’t aware of it. This impatience, I think, is mostly unconscious. We call this the “digital age,” but it is equally the “age of immediacy.” As many early media theorists suggested, digitization has changed our relationship with time (compressed it). And as recent, highly publicized plagues of mediated disinformation have demonstrated, digitization has changed our relationship to ourselves, to the truth, and to one another.

***

As you might know if you’re reading this, I study digital inequality “from the ground up,” as anthropologists like to say. In other words, my methods start with watching and listening to people, usually in ordinary, mundane situations. And then I progress to asking questions of people — about their lives, how they feel, what they’re doing. From that experience, I start to look for patterns and themes, and from those themes I might start to “theorize” (applying my own analytical lens to what I’ve observed in the interest of making it useful to others, like policymakers or other researchers). But generally, anthropologists steer clear of grand explanatory narratives. The diversity of human life and experience is too nuanced for that. And I am a staunch evangelist of nuance. 

Often I notice different things about my data at different times. Or, different pieces of data begin to stand out to me over time. That’s because it is not easy or natural to inhabit someone else’s perspective on the world. But it is interesting when it happens; those insights can shatter conventional ways of knowing and doing. And they can jolt us out of complacency. 

The man with his spreadsheet has often pushed his way to the forefront of my mind because, I think, it was a clear example of how I hadn’t seen things from his perspective. He, on the margins of digital literacy, and I, a “digital native,” had completely different conceptions of time and the role of digital technology in our lives. He has loomed large recently in my memory, undoubtedly because of the almost complete digitization of everyday life under lockdown. It is remarkable (miraculous, even!), but it also doesn’t feel particularly healthy. 

The digital world today is pervasive and unavoidable, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified this reality. We are all compelled to be online — for work, education, and even the most basic everyday services like banking or welfare. At the same time, the digital world we experience has evolved substantially under the influence of powerful internet companies that capitalize on our connectivity. The more time we spend online, the more money this digital economy generates. This is what has come to be called the “attention economy.” Our attention (time spent using digital platforms, which is translated into data) is valuable, and this economy intentionally distorts our incentives and behaviors to occupy our time and generate profit. 

Of course, it’s not all bad: we gain a lot of exciting and useful digital resources that make many aspects of life more convenient. But this convenience also comes at the cost of some seriously problematic outcomes for the natural environment, our bodies, and our minds. So, I have been contemplating how to acknowledge and address the issue of “attention” and “balance” in my own research on digital inequality and poverty.

Most of the time, when we talk about the digital divide, we mean the gap between people who have internet access and don’t, or the gap between people with sufficient digital skills and those without. Closing the gap is the goal. Greater “equality” is the reward (supposedly). But. But! If we take into account the experiences, challenges, and perspectives of people who fall on “the wrong side” of the digital divide, we can see it’s more nuanced than that. 

We might ask: what’s so great about joining a digital world dominated, as it is, by commercial interests that have entrenched an extractive and addictive logic to essential platforms? (Yes, I would begrudgingly suggest that even Facebook should be seen as “essential” in our current media ecosystem.) And arguably, this logic disproportionately disadvantages digitally and socio-economically marginalized people, who are targeted by predatory loan schemes and healthcare scams, penalized by algorithmic credit scoring, and profiled by their digital footprints. (I haven’t hyperlinked any of this essay because hyperlinking is one of the ways I would argue our attention to text becomes fragmented, but I have included a list of relevant references at the end.) 

So as a researcher interested in meaningful digital equality, not just in universal access or skills, I have been asking myself how digital inclusion — getting and keeping people online — can also empower people to make meaningful choices about how technology does and should affect their lives and our planet. This is how my thinking goes: we’re not really achieving digital equality, justice, or fairness if by helping people join the digital world, we’re also subjecting them to potentially greater exploitation due to the foundational, extractive logic of digital platforms. In fact, couldn’t challenging this logic help all of us achieve a better relationship with the digital world?

I think answering this question could be the “curb cut” of the digital age — a design change to benefit the “extreme use case” (the marginalized user) that actually benefits us all. 

Perhaps it’s even more urgent to think about these issues when we’ve already fully bought into the convenience of the digital world. Don’t get me wrong — Microsoft Teams and Zoom have been incredibly useful platforms in this socially distanced period. But for most of us, we haven’t managed to strike a balance between the digital and the non-digital. We’re all-in, connected 24/7. 

This line of thinking has led me to explore a small but growing body of literature on resisting the “attention economy.” And just in case this concept appeals to your screen-weary eyeballs and distracted brains as much as it does to mine, I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned so far in this exploration…

***

Rob Kitchin and Alistair Fraser’s recent book, Slow Computing (Bristol University Press, 2020), lays out the argument that the digital world we know today has been built on a foundation of two related forces: acceleration and extraction. Acceleration is the compression of time facilitated by digital connectivity, and the time pressures that this compression puts on us. Namely, digital tech puts pressure on us to respond (in various ways) and lose control of our personal time. This urgency and immediacy leads to an overemphasis on the present and a reversion to instinctual, rather than reflective, critical thinking. Extraction, in Kitchin and Fraser’s account, refers to the “increasing capture of everyday life as a continual stream of data” (p. 54), a concept that has gained notoriety in recent years due to scandals like Cambridge Analytica. Extraction leads to a “data-mentality” whereby we move through the world knowing that we are data subjects, and this affects our decisions and behaviors. This extractive regime also feels unavoidable or inevitable, making it easier to just “go along with it” rather than inconvenience ourselves or others by opting out.

Long story short, if you’re feeling the screen burnout these days, it’s probably about more than just the countless hours you’ve clocked on Zoom since last March. It’s rooted in the whole digital ecosystem and how it has gradually re-wired our social and professional lives.

In Slow Computing, Kitchin and Fraser present the concept of “slowness” as an alternative to the accelerating and extracting logics of our day-to-day digital lives. It’s “a way to characterize a type of response to digital life that prioritizes your needs and interests, as well as the public good for society as a whole” (p.11), based on “a general underlying philosophy […] that has a built-in ethics of care to oneself, to each other, and to the planet. It’s not simply a matter of changing pace, but also changing perspectives about what matters and then trying to enact a more sustainable, enjoyable, and fulfilling lifestyle” (p.13). 

Kitchen and Fraser call us to go against the grain, to resist in small ways that can help us reclaim our autonomy from pressures and punishments of a relentlessly (technologically) connected life. But importantly, slow computing isn’t about completely shunning the digital world or disconnecting entirely. I think we all know that such a position — of total withdrawal — is unrealistic. (One reason, perhaps, why practices of “digital detox” have morphed into a commercial aesthetic, a self-indulgent veneer masquerading as transformative ethics.) Instead, achieving slowness is about approaching connectivity with care and, crucially, attention.

That’s the focus of Jenny Odell’s compelling memoir-self-help-essay-collection-mish-mash How to Do Nothing (Melville House Publishing, 2019). She argues for reclaiming our “attention” for ourselves. Echoing the impacts of “acceleration,” she points to how all of our time has become “productive” time, and yet we are often less productive. Our digital lives are defined by how much stuff we can cram into the smallest amount of (network) time. But if we do more of “nothing,” Odell suggests, we might actually achieve more: higher quality work, greater satisfaction — even happiness — and real social change. Like Fraser and Kitchin, Odell isn’t extolling the unmitigated virtues of a life of total reclusion (she roundly critiques the inefficacy of commune movements throughout history). “Some hybrid reaction is needed,” she writes. “We have to be able to do both: to contemplate and participate, to leave and always come back, where we are needed” (p. 61).

I think anthropology is a “slow” discipline. It hinges on stepping outside one’s familiar surroundings to see a different point of view. Odell’s observes that the archetypal recluse or sage retreats in order to gain greater knowledge of the self and the world. “Mainstream society needs the perspective of its outsiders and recluses to illuminate problems and alternatives that aren’t visible form the inside” (pp. 55-56). Without traveling to distant shores or adopting a hermetic existence, we can all practice this removal within the defined sphere of our own lives by changing routines — resisting the monotonous conditioning of “how things are.”

“We absolutely require distance and time to be able to see the mechanisms we thoughtlessly submit to. More than that […] we need distance and time to be functional enough to do or think anything meaningful at all.” (p. 60)

Stepping away or out of the everyday can be not only personally liberating, but radically and collectively energizing. As our bodies disappear behind the screen, argues Odell, “so does our ability to empathize” (p. 24). Only by achieving some distance from this urgency-inducing culture can we imagine projects for gender, racial, environmental, and economic justice. But, she also points out (importantly) that refusal and rejection are often only choices available to those who can “afford” it — in other words, those of us with a “degree of latitude” (pg. 82) either on the individual level, where we won’t face significant financial or personal damage due to our refusal, or at a societal level, where we won’t be disproportionately penalized for our noncompliance. Indeed, refusal is often a luxury.

But that does not render it pointless.

In the early days of the pandemic, there was a great deal of optimism that this sudden shift in life-as-normal might cause us to reflect on what really matters, to slow down a bit. Maybe we would come out of this with a healthier relationship to work, travel, consumerism…?! But in many ways, the pandemic has intensified the de-humanizing, de-materializing effects of digital connectivity on our work and personal lives, as we have come to depend on networked technologies ever more completely. There is no better time to reflect on the promise and pitfalls of technology. With many people deeply disadvantaged by digital exclusion, it is easy to treat connectivity simply as an essential resource that everyone deserves and that we are lucky to have. But digital equality is both about expanding connectivity and also about being able to choose to disconnect.

Acts of individual refusal can potentially restore some “digital balance” to our lives — balance that many of us feel we desperately need. But collective refusal can register on a more public scale. It can shift practices and discourses. What responsibility, then, do those of us who are digital natives, fully connected, and digitally literate have in demanding a recalibration of our relationship with technology?

We have quite literally bought into the digital world as we know it, but the digital world as we know it needs work. Digital equality, then, cannot simply be about getting as many people as possible to buy into this digital world. It also has to be about changing the world itself. Practices, like “slowness” and “refusal” offer avenues for doing that work. But they are open mainly to those of us who have access, who are already all-in. If feeling a little less stressed, impatient, hurried, and distracted were not motivation enough on a selfish (and I use this term neutrally, to mean focused on the self) level, then maybe this societal imperative will be compelling.

I chose the epigraph for this letter because I like its cloudy tincture of sharp critique and ambiguity. Our kingdoms of experience are rotting in the wind, and in that negation — that absence of… what is it? maybe, empathy? — an entitled few are left aimlessly debating “what is real and what is not” from a parapet of privilege. A debate so abstract that it amounts to nothing, but so eternal it must amount to everything. 

Today, such debates about reality inherently implicate technology and our relationship to digitization. We might already reside in the parapet, captivated by or captive to our own point of view. Imagining and building alternative realities will invariably demand some new perspectives and some acts of refusal — to make space not just for a more equitable distribution of digital resources but for a more equitable ethics of digital life.

“Attention is a state of openness that assumes there is something new to be seen,” writes Odell. “It is also true that this state must resist our tendency to declare our observations finished–to be done with it” (p. 112).

So, I invite you to look into the ordinary corners of everyday life, and wonder at what you will find has always been there.

Thank you for giving me your attention. 🙂

// Practical Refusal

(Some small things we can all do to live more balanced digital lives, 100% lifted from the books referenced in this letter.)

  • Step away from non-critical work out-of-hours; put up a (friendly!) away message saying you are disconnecting until X time
  • Designate some spaces in your workplace (or home!) network-free spaces, where you do not use networked devices and instead pay attention to other things or other people
  • Reduce the number of “connections” you follow or maintain on social media to just one or two degrees of familiarity (the people you actually talk to, in real life)
  • Do not take networked devices into your bedroom: do not use your phone as an alarm, and try not to turn on your networked devices until after breakfast each day
  • Put your devices on airplane mode or turn off the wifi for designated periods of the day to set aside focused time for work, study, or leisure
  • Switch off your home wifi router for a defined period of time each evening and/or weekend
  • Instead of streaming TV or movies and making spontaneous decisions about what to watch, plan what you will watch that day or that week ahead of time; download those shows/films to your devices so you can watch in the evening without wifi (or the stress of making a decision/binging on one show)
  • Take an inventory of your daily tech use and determine whether you can replace any tech with analogue strategies, like using a paper agenda, or reading a paper newspaper
  • Reorganize the applications on your devices, placing distracting apps further “away” from the home screen
  • Schedule meetings using “clock time” rather than “network time” – that means resisting the urge to schedule things on the fly and instead scheduling meetings well in advance and sticking to the schedule
  • Practice exercises in attention — focus on a familiar place and notice the unfamiliar things about it; focus on something until it is utterly boring, and stay with it; push past the boredom to find something new, and interesting about it

**Remember: these practices will be difficult, and that is by design. We can only do so much alone — refusal is easier the more we do it together. So, shift your own personal practices and your expectations of others’ behaviors and practices. And forgive yourself when you fail. Taking it slow in a digitized world is hard. But resistance is rooted in the small things!**

// Reading (and Listening) List


Kitchin, R., & Fraser, A. (2020). Slow Computing: Why We Need Balanced Digital Lives. Bristol University Press.

Odell, J. (2019). How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Melville House Publishing.

Digital Dystopia: How Algorithms Punish the Poor by Ed Pilkington in The Guardian

High-Tech Homelessness by Virginia Eubanks in American Scientist

The Devastating Consequences of Being Poor in the Digital Age by Mary Madden in The New York Times

Algorithms Designed to Fight Poverty Can Actually Make It Worse by Virginia Eubanks in Scientific American

How algorithms rule our working lives by Cathy O’Neil in The Guardian

COVID-19 and the digital divide in the UK by Geoff Watts in The Lancet (full disclosure: I’m quoted in this)

COVID-19: The Need for a Social Vaccine by Fran Baum and Sharon Friel in Insight+

Curb Cuts – Episode 308 of the 99% Invisible podcast

// P.S. 

Give it your all: Find something you’re as passionate about as this PE teacher is about tying shoelaces.

The Remote British Village that Built One of the Fastest Internet Networks in the UK

Nestled between Lancashire’s stand-out beauty, the Forest of Bowland, and the breathtaking vistas of the Yorkshire Dales, the serene, postcard-perfect village of Clapham seems far removed from the COVID-19 pandemic. But when the British government announced a nationwide lockdown in mid-March, Clapham went on high alert.

Local residents formed what they dubbed “Clapham COBRA”, a volunteer emergency response initiative that aimed to mitigate the negative effects of isolation by sharing information, delivering supplies, and checking in on one another. Like many rural villages, Clapham is fairly geographically isolated and home to an ageing population, with most of its roughly 600 residents over the age of 45. But when it came to confronting extreme isolation, it also has a unique advantage: unlike much of rural England, Clapham boasts one of the best internet connections in the country – and the locals built it themselves.

Ann Sheridan remembers well the moment she got Broadband for the Rural North, known as “B4RN” (pronounced “barn”), to her house in Clapham in March 2016. She recounted to me over the phone: 

I remember my next door neighbours nearly coming to blows because their son downloaded the whole series of Game of Thrones on a 2 megabits per second (Mbps) internet connection. And none of them could do anything else on the internet for days, right? So it was obvious that if the community wasn’t going to be left behind … we had to do something.

B4RN started planning to roll out its fibre-to-the-home network in Clapham in 2014, and by the end of 2018, around 180 homes out of 300 in the village had been hooked up with an affordable full gigabit-per-second symmetrical connection (currently only around 10% of homes in Britain are even capable of receiving such a connection). The speeds are impressive, especially in a rural context where internet connectivity lags horrendously behind urban areas in Britain. Rural download speeds average around 28Mbps, compared to 62.9Mbps on average in urban areas. B4RN, meanwhile, delivers 1,000Mbps.

The internet is more important than ever during the lockdown, where lack of access exposes other inequalities in internet use and skills. But B4RN means much more to digitally and geographically isolated communities than the internet service it provides.

Fibre-optic cable reel in a sheep field. © Kira Allmann, 2019, Author provided

A community network

B4RN is registered as a Community Benefit Society, which means the business belongs to the communities who need it: community members own the enterprise, and in B4RN’s case, they also actually build a lot of the infrastructure themselves. As a result, the process of “getting” B4RN involves a substantial commitment – of time, training, money, and physical labour. 

Ann Sheridan was a B4RN “champion”, meaning that she – along with three other volunteers – headed the effort to build B4RN in her village. The role involved “all kinds of things”, she recalls. Building a fibre-optic internet network from scratch involves a steep learning curve and a lot of teamwork. Community members need to map their coverage area, secure permissions (called wayleaves) to cross their neighbours’ land, and dig trenches across fields and gardens to lay plastic ducting for the fibre-optic cable.


In the end, the connections B4RN facilitates in a place like Clapham are more than technological – they’re personal. And the impact of those connections is especially evident now. “Everybody in the village knows every everyone, it was like that anyway,” Sheridan explains. “But B4RN put rocket boosters under it.”

Over the last year, I have visited and spoken with people in many different communities that have had a hand in building B4RN, and each time I have heard a similar story: you dig B4RN into your own back garden, but B4RN also digs into you. The mutual understanding and genuine friendships fostered among local people during the building process last well beyond the installation itself. In Clapham, the collaborative effort that went into B4RN contributed to a pre-existing rapport that helped in the face of the coronavirus lockdown. 

As Sheridan put it: “We know each other. We know our strengths and weaknesses, so we can just crack on with things.”

B4RN co-founder Chris Conder demonstrating at a Friday afternoon computer club. Cake is always included. © Kira Allmann, 2019, Author provided

The connectivity divide

B4RN was born of necessity. To date, traditional profit-making telecommunications companies have struggled to reach rural communities. Mobile coverage lags behind, too: 83% of urban premises have complete 4G coverage, but in rural areas, it’s just 41%. In some areas, including many of the places B4RN operates, there’s no coverage whatsoever.

A major reason for this disparity is that private telecom companies have few financial incentives to extend their networks to rural areas. More physical infrastructure is needed to reach scattered villages and homes, and there are rarely enough potential paying customers in these sparsely populated areas to offset the costs. 

Government incentives, such as subsidies and voucher schemes, have helped to spur private companies to take on less commercially viable “builds”, but companies are still slow to carry them out and tend to prioritise bolstering existing infrastructure over building entirely new networks. Year on year, the pervasive digitisation of everyday life, from banking to entertainment, has made this rural-urban digital divide even more profound. 

According to the UK’s telecommunications regulator Ofcom, around 11% of rural premises cannot access even a 10 Mbps connection, and although Ofcom observes 95% coverage of “superfast” broadband (30 Mbps) nationwide, those statistics are collected from telecom companies themselves. Rural users often describe much worse service. 

In a 2019 survey of National Farmers Union members, 30% said they experienced less than a 2Mbps connection, and only 17% could access a 24Mbps connection. Rural communities are getting left behind, and their experiences of disconnection are invisible in aggregate statistics.

‘I wanted broadband’

On arrival in Clapham in spring 2019, I met Chris Conder, a straight-talking farmer’s wife who was arguably the driving force behind B4RN. Her unwavering campaign for broadband for her village, Wray, has spanned almost two decades and spurred more than one experimental infrastructure project. Like many people I’ve spoken to in rural villages, Conder’s desire for broadband was personal. 

“I was a carer for granddad, who had dementia,” Conder told me. Getting him proper care at their rural farm was difficult, but she had heard about telemedicine, and it seemed like exactly the thing she needed.

I would ring the doctor, and I would say, look he’s just thrown the newspaper in the fire and nearly set fire to the house because he’s read something in it that upset him, or he’s fallen on the floor, will you please send somebody out? And the doctor would send the psychiatric nurse a week on Tuesday. And when the psychiatric nurse came, there was a lovely old man sat in his chair, drinking his tea, happy as Larry. So, I couldn’t get any help with his medication, and his condition got worse and worse. And I knew I could do video conferencing if I had broadband, so I tried everything to get broadband … I just thought, if only the doctor could see what he was doing, he would say, oh my goodness, yes, let’s just change his medication.

At first, she investigated options through a major telecom provider. But the costs were high, and villages would have to endure a long wait. In some cases, communities were told to raise tens of thousands of pounds for a company to install a fibre cabinet nearby, but when it arrived, speeds in people’s homes, which were often miles away from the cabinet connection, were still abysmal.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had someone visit us without their own car,” I remember Conder saying on the phone to me in 2018, when I was planning that first excursion up to B4RN from Oxford. “How will you get around here?” Although not far from cities like Lancaster or Manchester, the train station where Conder ultimately met me was decidedly remote in certain consequential ways. One glance across the undulating hills dotted with forests and sliced through by rocky rivers, and it’s obvious why getting the internet here is no small feat. 

B4RN vehicle parked in a field in rural northwest England during a fibre installation. © Kira Allmann, 2019, Author provided

Building resilient, fibre-fed networks in rural areas is challenging and expensive for any telecom operator. In recognition of this fact, the UK government has committed £5 billion to rolling out rural fibre networks. The high costs are due to many factors. Homes are often spread far apart, and getting a connection from one property to the next requires obtaining legal permission to cross big stretches of privately held land. In addition, there’s old infrastructure in place – mostly copper wires laid to carry telephone signals – which companies have largely preferred to repurpose for carrying internet connections, rather than put down new fibre-optic lines across the many rivers, roads, railway lines, and ancient stone walls that stand in the way.

So, Conder and a few exasperated friends began investigating alternative options, like wireless mesh networking. Those efforts brought her into contact with computer network engineers at the University of Lancaster, and after years of collaborating, campaigning and cajoling, B4RN was established in 2011 – with Barry Forde (now B4RN CEO), a professor of computer networking at Lancaster University, at the helm. He contributed his technical expertise while Conder exercised her chutzpah.

Conder and Forde, along with a few other local advocates, made up the founding management committee, and all that remained was to turn their ambitious vision into reality without breaking the bank. And that’s how the B4RN motto was minted: “JFDI”; “just flipping do it”.

Just Flippin’ Do It

The B4RN management team started raising money for their network by selling shares in the business, but communities still needed to fundraise aggressively to afford the build, which could easily could have reached into the hundreds of thousands of pounds for materials and specialist contractors. They needed to keep costs down, and that’s when, according to Conder, the local postman in Wray made a game-changing suggestion. 

Conder sometimes ran a small hair cutting business out of her farmhouse, and the postman was in for a trim one day while she nattered away about the B4RN plans. After listening to her various apprehensions about actually pulling it all off, he said: “You’re farmers, right? You’ve got diggers. Why not dig it in yourselves?”

Preparing fibre-optic cable for fusing. © Kira Allmann, 2019, Author provided

And the rest was history. Conder and the other founding members had already been volunteering nearly full time for B4RN, but they realised that if they recruited almost every new subscriber as a volunteer (responsible for digging in their own connection), that would expedite the whole process and keep the costs low. Early adopters recruited neighbours, and neighbours recruited neighbours. They negotiated free wayleaves to cross each other’s land and pooled resources like spades, diggers, drills, and other equipment. The first village to get connected was Quernmore in 2012, and Conder’s village, Wray, nearly 20km away, came online in 2014.

When Conder requested a quote from BT for laying fibre from the nearest mast in Melling to Wray, BT told her it would cost £120 per metre. B4RN’s first round of shares raised £300,000 to purchase the ducting, cabling, and other equipment for their own build, and they compensated volunteers £1.50 per metre of core ducting they put down. Not only did they save money on the initial network roll-out across rural farmland, but they kept the funding entirely in the community from start to finish. 

Today, B4RN has connected roughly 7,000 homes in the rural north-west of England. Alongside the volunteers who still carry out the local build, they employ 56 permanent staff members to run the network day-to-day. A connection costs £150 per subscriber, and the monthly subscription for a full 1000Mbps connection is a flat £30 per month. It’s difficult to compare broadband prices meaningfully across UK providers, but Cable.co.uk reports that the average cost of broadband in the UK is about £0.86 per megabit per month. B4RN’s monthly price is closer to £0.03 per megabit.

For other communities considering their options in hard-to-reach areas across the country, B4RN now features as a “case study” in the government’s guidance on community-led broadband projects. And before lockdown, B4RN’s periodic “show and tell days” offered prospective communities the chance to visit B4RN-land and learn how to do it first-hand. As a result of this knowledge exchange, B4RN has inspired and trained other projects in places like Norfolk and Devon and Somerset.

Government support

Over time, recognition of the importance of affordable broadband connectivity has slowly grown, reflected in several important initiatives to spur infrastructure development in rural areas. And just as the scale of the COVID-19 crisis necessitated an imminent national lockdown in March, the government’s Universal Service Obligation (USO) came into effect. It grants people in the UK the right to request a decent broadband connection (of at least 10 Mbps).

In a public recognition of the UK’s digital divide, the 2019 general election manifestos of all three major parties contained ambitious broadband plans. Labour even promised to nationalise British Telecom (BT) in order to provide free broadband to the country, which was roundly derided. But the coronavirus crisis has trained a spotlight on the importance of broadband in everyday life and arguably given substance to the hotly contested supposition that internet access is a question of basic rights.

“Most people at the moment would switch the gas off, I think, rather than switch the broadband off,” Jorj Haston, the B4RN Volunteer Coordinator and Training Officer told me over the phone in April. 

B4RN volunteers digging and installing a chamber. © B4RN, Author provided

Crisis demand

Right now, B4RN is in the middle of building out the network in around two dozen communities. A further two dozen are in the planning stages. The process can take time, as communities scrape together funding and coordinate volunteer “dig days” to move a project forward. Lockdown has inevitably slowed things down, but the volunteer-driven nature of each community build, along with the open lines of communication between community champions and B4RN staff, have offered unexpected advantages when it comes to getting people connected under lockdown conditions.

In Silverdale, near Morecambe Bay, local B4RN champion Martin Lange is responding quickly to “desperate” local residents who are waiting on connections. Silverdale is mid-build, with around 400 homes online so far. “Over the last two years, we’ve learned all the tricks,” Lange says, talking about B4RN. “I’ve got all of this kit in my garage.” The decentralised nature of B4RN builds, where community volunteers often do much of the technical installation, has meant that champions like Lange can continue to make connections and identify local priority cases based on word-of-mouth. 

B4RN volunteers digging a trench for ducting in Over Kellet. © B4RN, 2019, Author provided

The week I spoke with him, Lange had just connected a Silverdale man and his family, who were self-isolating due to illness. The man had emailed saying they urgently needed the internet to do work and school online, with one child who has special needs. Lange blew the fibre to the man’s house: sending the fibre-optic cable through plastic ducting using compressed air. This is a job that would normally take an hour with two volunteers but took Lange four, working alone to observe social distancing guidelines. Then, wearing gloves, he fused the fibre into the router, working outside the house. Finally, he passed the sterile router back through the window.

B4RN volunteers and staff have been coming up with “quick fixes” rapidly in recent months, getting creative about how to install connections without getting too close. That’s a challenge for B4RN, which has been built in many ways on physical proximity. On “dig days”, villages would typically come together to work on various aspects of the network together. And there’s something for everyone to do. 

“People who maybe necessarily couldn’t dig, think, oh, this project isn’t really for me, but there’s so much more to it than that,” Mike Iddon, a B4RN champion in Burton-in-Kendal, says. They need people to draw the local network maps or to clearly label the ducting. Some folks contribute by providing tea and cake.

Fibre ducting trench dug by B4RN volunteers in Caton. © B4RN, 2015, Author provided

These days, B4RN staff and volunteers – like Lange and Iddon – are passing routers through windows, walking people through the digging and installation process over the phone, and setting up wireless hotspots in areas where the fibre hasn’t quite reached the homes. Where they can, B4RN staff are also implementing temporary connections for key workers and organisations. In recent weeks, they have connected a policewoman in the Ribble Valley on the COVID-19 response team, a haematologist in Cumbria who needed to set up a home office to serve his self-isolating patients, and a pharmaceutical warehouse in Lancashire supplying the NHS. 

Resilience

Lockdown has highlighted the importance of the internet. But paradoxically, B4RN’s model for success has more to do with the power of human connections that have long been integral to geographically isolated rural communities.

Modern times and trends have eroded many facets of rural life, as local institutions like village halls and shops have buckled under the economic pressures of ever-increasing centralisation of services in metropolitan areas – or online. Young people have fled the countryside for educational and economic opportunities in cities. In this context, B4RN offers a new local venue for community-building – a social space forged in and of the digital age.

B4RN volunteers moving a reel of plastic ducting in a field. © B4RN, 2015, Author provided

During normal times, a small bunch of B4RN volunteers – led by Conder – organise a weekly “computer club” at B4RN headquarters in Melling. People from all over B4RN’s northwest coverage area trundle in with their devices and questions, and get advice from local folks on how to set up a wifi booster or ring the grandkids on Skype. Under lockdown, it’s these in person services that are missed most.

In this rural corner of the country, B4RN is succeeding – doggedly, gradually – where other attempts at extending digital connectivity have failed. This mostly comes down to local commitment and local knowledge. The coronavirus pandemic has made apparent something these communities have felt for a long time – the internet is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity for participating fully in an increasingly digitised society.

In the process, communities have shored up their personal ties and re-energised a community spirit that can do more than get the internet to a few hundred local living rooms. In Ann Sheridan’s words, “It builds community resilience”. And that resilience is plainly apparent now. One thing’s for sure: come rain or shine, or a global pandemic, B4RN will keep making connections. They will just flippin’ do it.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation.

Reflections on the digital ‘archive’ of the Arab Spring

(Adapted from my presentation at the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) annual conference)

On October 16 this year, the popular photo hosting service Twitpic announced it would be shutting down. The announcement came after weeks of negotiation, as the company attempted to find a buyer that might save it from obsolescence. 

When Twitpic launched in 2008, it quickly became one of the most popular and successful services for sharing photos on Twitter, particularly among citizen journalists documenting live events. But with the announcement of its impending closure, all of those images were in jeopardy. 

On the website, Twitpic advised users to download their own photo archives and gave step-by-step directions to aid users in saving and storing their photos before it was too late. Fewer than ten days later, no one—not even the photographers themselves—would have access to the Twitpic records anymore.

The announcement went relatively unnoticed, not least because of previous false alarms. In the end, Twitpic gave us little time to consider what might happen to those photos, where they would go, who owned them, and what we could do about it. Documentary material from nearly every major news event over the past five years was sitting in the digital Twitpic repository. Although most of it had wound up in the public sphere—posted, shared, retweeted—at one point or another, now its survival depended not on the countless digital consumers who had seen and shared the images but on the original producers.

Twitpic shutdown announcement

In order to save the public record, it had to be made private again. It had to be actively downloaded from the shared Twitpic servers onto personal computers and storage devices—perhaps to be shared again somewhere new, perhaps to join a burgeoning personal archive reaching unmanageable proportions. We create more now than we can organize and retrieve. 

The Twitpic announcement has tangible consequences for how we remember the past on social media because jumbled up with countless cat photos and college selfies are photos from tsunamis, earthquakes, Tahrir Square and the Pearl Roundabout. 

The Arab Spring, as it is popularly known, reinforced our collective enchantment with social media as events across the Middle East and North Africa were broadcast on TV and computer screens worldwide. The revolutions were unprecedentedly technologically mediated. They were organized, documented, and transmitted through digital social media, which supported some early and misguided perceptions that social media was the revolution, rather than the longstanding historical cries for political and economic reform. 

Still, social media was important, and this is a discussion of how a digital narrative of the Arab Spring is underpinned by the preponderance of digital texts that we—academics, journalists, activists, and others—use to explain it.

In the Twitpic shutdown, some activists, journalists and other Twitter users saw the potential for great losses. They tweeted, texted and posted pleas for Twitpic users to preserve their photos, knowing that at least part of the revolutionary story was stored on Twitpic servers. 

The example of Twitpic should make us pause to think—in the midst of unprecedented, vibrant social media production—about what gets lost and forgotten and how the commercial architecture of major internet platforms is implicated in these processes of preservation and annihilation.

Some questions I have begun to ask myself about the digital ‘archive’ of the Arab Spring include:

(1) When a digital platform can no longer host digital ‘artifacts’ for users, where does that archive relocate? What are the political, social, and technological mechanisms by which those public archives are made obsolete, invisible, or inaccessible?

(2) When collections are saved privately, they leave the public domain, if/how/should they be made accessible again? How are the unfolding counter-revolutionary politics changing ethical expectations about how information can and should be shared?

We’re getting to this point now, nearly four years later, when we’re beginning to look retrospectively at the Arab Spring as a historical moment. We’re starting to ask whether these revolutionary moments are over, or whether what we are dealing with is history at all. 

It seemed to me that we should interrogate the sources we turn to in order to answer these questions. We should consider the process of history-making and the role that digital artifacts will come to play in this process for all of us — academics, journalists, etc.

Idea for this talk came from my own experiences trying to save, record, archive material for my DPhil, as well as interviews from my field work in Egypt with people who are trying to actively archive their experiences during the revolution. Many people rely on social media repositories of digital artifacts, like photos and videos.

While the unique characteristics of the political and technological moment of revolution present unprecedented opportunities to retain, save, and remember multi-media events, they also encompass a shocking potential for loss, deletion and forgetting. It is so easy to be completely immersed in what is there—photos, eyewitness videos, live tweets, blog posts—that we have to constantly remind ourselves to consider what’s not there.

There is also a tendency to believe that digital technology makes memory easier – and in many ways it does! We could be forgiven for believing that digital artifacts are more permanent, less corruptible, and even perfectly suited for aggregation and categorization. In fact, many platforms help us do this more efficiently through search functions and algorithmic sorting.

But, as I will argue, these assumptions are the product of the same kind of tech-utopianism that called the Egyptian revolution a “Facebook” or “Twitter” revolution. They are reductive. They do not take into account the techno-social relationships that create these kinds of archives — leaving the story to technology first and foremost.

In this discussion, I’m going to reference Egypt primarily, as that’s where I do most of my field work, but this discussion is open to other contexts and ramifications. In my thesis, I examine a number of specific archival ‘projects’ that emerged out of the Egyptian revolutionary moment. They all took particular interest in trying to aggregate the digital artifacts of the revolution, recognizing that this was a uniquely digitally mediated event and that its history would be recorded across both physical and virtual domains. I will not go into these cases in any great detail here, but instead, I am going to draw out several themes that emerged from looking at these archival initiatives and their successes and failure. These issues, I think, are relevant to broader theoretical discussions about digital archives, and they are informed by critical archival studies of analogue archives.

Specifically, I will focus on four themes that have emerged for me from my study of digital archive of the Egyptian revolution: curation, deletion, temporality, and re/over-writing.

Curation

When I talk about curation of the digital record, I am talking about issues of authority: who gets to contribute to the archive and what that means about its longevity, its resilience, its biases, and its assumptions.

The curatorial process in the digital archives of revolution is often hard to pinpoint. It’s not always clear who or what is doing the curating in a digital space. But curatorial authority is obscured in ways that differ from the obscurity of authority in analogue archives. In archival projects like the ones I am looking at, someone or a group of individuals has taken on the role of collecting and sorting digital artifacts. But those artifacts might have been produced and indeed pre-sorted, pre-categorized, pre-filtered by another set of creators-slash-curators, either the owners/authors of the content themselves or the technological processes acting on that content on certain platforms.

If you search ‘#EgyptianRevolution’ on Twitter, for instance, to find photos, posts, and videos, aren’t you also finding a combination of what has been filtered for you by users (who have labeled their content already) and by the search function of the platform, which sets its own criteria for relevance and importance?

In my own work on digital archiving of the revolution, it is also apparent that many self-identified curators are themselves political activists. They are also digitally fluent, meaning they have high levels of digital literacy, and indeed, often literacy in both English and Arabic. They see their archival projects as acts of witnessing, much like the photography and filming of Tahrir Square during revolution.

But there are other kinds of ‘curators’ in this space, too. NGOs, libraries, and universities have launched archival projects in Egypt, and, of course, the government has also expressed interest in curating digital artifacts. All of these actors understand — quite explicitly — that curating digital artifacts is also about writing a particular narrative.

I think it’s worth mentioning that I’ve grappled with how to classify these archival initiatives or projects so as to distinguish between their different structures and objectives. We might say, for instance, there are ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ archives. Organizations and the government classify their collection endeavors as archival projects — meaning, they set out to preserve an historical record of the revolution. But the ‘unofficial’ domain of archiving encompasses pretty much everything and anything else. Arguably, we have all become archivists in our production of digital content for social media.

This abundance of content, the diversity of potential ‘archives’ available for aggregation and curation, preserves the Egyptian revolution from myriad perspectives. This is essentially what was lauded about the mediation of the revolution in the early days of 2011: the eye-witness accounts that challenged ‘official’ narratives. We could see the revolution unfold from the ground. But this diversity of perspective does not negate the need to confront the issue of archive neutrality, as critical archival studies would remind us. All archives — including the burgeoning, distributed social media archive of content from the Egyptian revolution — are created in the dialectic between inclusion and exclusion.

One major source of exclusion when we’re talking about digital archives is the digital divide between those with regular, stable internet access and those without. In Egypt, this divide is highly consequential. In 2011, internet penetration in Egypt was just around 25%. To overcome this exclusion, some activists have actively tried to bridge the online/offline divide by digitizing non-digital artifacts, records, and recollections. I talk more about this in my thesis, but it was important for these citizen-archivists to confront and subvert this exclusionary inequality of access in curating digital archives. It was a sort of quiet acknowledgment that born-digital archives would wind up being inherently partial and — arguably — elite.

Another source of exclusion was what we might call “partitioning” of content across multiple platforms and formats. I refer to the “distributed archive” in my doctoral research because of the way digital artifacts are scattered across different proprietary, personal, and public platforms. A key issue related to curatorial authority here is the question of ownership. Who actually owns the hardware (software, servers, etc.) that artifacts are stored on? When a user relies on a proprietary platform, like Twitpic, to store and help to sort some of their personal digital archive, what happens when the company goes bust? The preponderance of digital artifacts that we all produce everyday as regular digital users means that we increasingly rely on intermediaries to store, sort, and publish our content — those intermediaries introduce new kinds of precarity into our digital repositories.

Deletion

By ‘deletion,’ I am referring to the active and passive removal of content from a particular archival space. One source of deletion is government censorship. Already, the Egyptian government has blocked and removed certain websites, and as we saw during the 18 days of protest in 2011, the government can even shut the internet down entirely. In 2013, Egypt briefly blocked YouTube over the publication of the “Innocence of Muslims” film, and there is currently a lawsuit pending in a Cairo court on banning Twitter and Facebook in Egypt unless the companies obtain a special license to operate.

In addition, commercial platforms like Facebook and Twitter practice their own forms of intentional and unintentional censorship. The “reporting” feature that allows users to flag inappropriate content often results in the removal of politicized content, resulting in at least temporary censorship of some digital records that certain activists might argue constitute an important archive of political events. There are many examples of this kind of erasure occurring on Syrian revolutionary pages, where graphic images have fallen foul of platform community standards.

By contrast, there are also non-ideological and non-politicized erasure and removal of content due to expiry, where online repositories of digital artifacts simply cease to exist. Because even personal websites and blogs need to be maintained to stay active (and sometimes this involves paying hosting fees or maintaining servers), repositories can disappear.

And of course, there is also self-censorship and active deletion by the creators of digital content. Dramatic changes in the political climate in Egypt and elsewhere have prompted many activists and citizen-journalists to remove content once posted online or to refrain from posting new content.

Temporality

Another theme that has emerged from looking at archival initiatives seeking to preserve the digital artifacts of revolution is the issue of temporality — the interaction of both offline (political/social/human) time and platform time.

Most social media platforms are built on the logic of the “feed,” in which the most recent posts appear first. Older posts are pushed back, and eventually out of sight. With changes to the application programming interfaces (APIs) used to interact with platforms like Facebook and Twitter, it is becoming more difficult to search and query the past. Older posts (though permanent, in a sense) are made inaccessible without technical knowledge or money to access them through an API. Moreover, older content is replaced quickly with new content; the speed at which this replacement occurs results in certain kinds of erasure — annihilation by sheer quantity.

To search such large stores of data, distributed across the web, we rely on search engines as intermediaries, whose algorithmic processes of sorting also influence what we are likely to turn up.

And the viral effect of certain media content, which receives a large, rapid response, has a tendency to eclipse other content and events. What is the effect of vitality on our definition of (or ascribing of meaning to) certain events?

If everything can potentially be documented and shared, how much do we look for what isn’t?

Re-/Over-writing

As we enter the long tail of revolution now, we are seeing more and more counter-revolutionary narratives emerging and competing with revolutionary ones. Misinformation campaigns actively seek to re-write or over-write history, and the curatorial diversity discussed above means that many competing “authorities” can make claims to represent the true or complete record of the revolution — a highly politically contested event.

Changes in the political landscape can seriously affect the trajectory of digital “archives” — and which stakeholders are interested in its preservation. In Egypt, as elsewhere following the Arab Spring, there is widespread suspicion among revolutionary participants of “official” archives and narratives, meaning that energy and interest has turned strongly toward unofficial, personal, and dispersed archival practices. And when archiving is such a political endeavor in the present, the loss of political will or a shift in political energies can halt the archiving process, leading to abandoned projects and defunct platforms.

As new platforms emerge and old platforms die, how can digital archives of the future preserve not only the artifacts (in the form of text or videos or images) but also the context in which they appeared? Does it matter that a video first appeared on Facebook? Well, maybe.

Preserving digital artifacts by format alone would risk flattening this crucial context — the cultures, norms, and logics that influenced its creation, interpretation, or dissemination. These are the kinds of considerations that digital archives of such a highly politicized moment bring to light very starkly.

Concluding thoughts

I’d like to close by pointing out that these potential opportunities for erasure, deletion, or — at its more esoteric — forgetting through the digital archive — are also all potentially very positive and powerful opportunities for change and resistance. 

As scholars, we will of course turn to digital artifacts of the Egyptian revolution in making sense of what happened, but in doing so, we run the risk of privileging technologically mediated ‘texts’ and ‘artifacts’ in our analyses. It is obvious why we might rely too heavily on the digital record: it is relatively easy to aggregate, locate, and search. Digital artifacts lend themselves easily to storage and organization.

But we also need to be aware that the overwhelming amount of digital content will populate our archives of the Arab Spring might eclipse other artifacts — offline artifacts. The sheer quantity of public digital content engenders an erasure, a deletion, of that which is not there — that which is few, private, off the network.

Social media content may be abundant, but it is not representative of the full spectrum of participants in or experiences of revolution. The same inequalities that create the digital divide in access between ICT users and non-users act upon the digital texts that tell the story of revolution. Even online, where a seemingly limitless multiplicity of voices can contribute, we must always consider which voices are not heard, which artifacts have been excluded and why.

In Egypt, new state restrictions on expression and protest have not only constrained activity on the streets, they have stifled certain digital practices as well. Digital content has tremendous representational power; it can (and does) define an entire moment. Videos, images, and blog posts streaming out of Tahrir Square helped the entire world make sense of Egypt’s revolutionary moment. The digital age has rendered archiving a practice we must engage with in the present. For the reasons discussed above—the fracturing of curation, the explicit and implicit practices of deletion, the ephemeral nature of online content, and the processes of re- and over-writing—archiving has to be part of the unfolding revolutionary moment. We must consider how to incorporate digital artifacts into our practices of remembering, or like the fallible, perishable, vulnerable documents of the past, this archive may too be lost to new forces of forgetting. 

From football to facebook?: The long road to revolution in Egypt

I was standing in Tahrir Square in September on what had become a “typical” Friday: protesters were slowing trickling into the midan–some wrapped in Egyptian flags, some with black, white, and red painted faces, mothers and children, bearded men in white, students in t-shirts and jeans–and it seemed to be a lull, a moment of calm before something. A few protesters were anxious, not knowing how many would come to the streets that day, the post-revolutionary apprehension that plagued committed activists each week as the mosques emptied and the military guard, effectively a glorified-if-heavily-armed traffic control force, looked on. Over the chants of small pockets of activists, the hum of afternoon prayer, and the calls of street vendors selling soft drinks and snack food, a much louder rumbling was approaching. The Kasr al Nil bridge was suddenly overrun with people, cheering loudly, moving in one powerful mass toward Tahrir. Their sound, their collective footsteps filled the public space, even though their numbers certainly could not even come close to those in the same midan at the peak of revolution. Who? I thought. As if to answer my unspoken question, my friend Farida nodded toward the approaching crowd: “The Ultras,” she said, “are here.”  

***  

I am in the throes of writing my Master’s thesis, and the editing process has caused me to dig into a few topics I had not (or only cursorily) covered in my first drafts. This is one of those topics. I argue in a section on recent history of social movements in Egypt that the revolution was a long time in the making, a fact that is evidenced by the gradual upsurge in protest and strike activity within the last ten years. Along with pro-democracy groups like Kefaya and workers’ solidarity movements like the April 6th Youth, Egyptian football clubs deserve a mention. They represent an important connection between the events of January-February 2011 and past protests, mobilizations, and clashes with state forces. In addition, the football “Ultras” highlight the ways in which the offline and online dimensions of revolutionary politics in Egypt interacted in important ways.

The Offline Spaces of Political Identity: Football Clubs 

Egypt’s football teams and their fans made international news not long ago during the Port Said tragedy, a bloody massacre of Al Ahly football fans and players following their loss to rival Al Masry in Port Said, resulting in over 70 deaths. The violent scene on February 1 came with a great degree of uncertainty and confusion — questions about whether Al Masry fans (or perhaps a small group of thugs) had been allowed to enter the stadium with knives and other weapons. Fans and observers also suspected an intentional lack of intervention on the part of riot police at the pitch, perhaps due to the prominent role played by Ahlawy (the Al Ahly fans) during the Egyptian Revolution. The news around Port Said died down momentarily until a ruling by the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) which banned Al Masry from playing for two years erupted in the news at the end of March. The decision outraged Al Ahly fans as well as Al Masry supporters, resulting in new waves of protest and violence in response to the decision.  

On the surface, these clashes might seem like dismissible instances of classic football hooliganism — the pointless violence commonly associated with the world’s most antagonistic teams, but such an analysis would only scrape the surface of the identity politics playing out in Egypt’s football clubs, a politics which Ashraf El Sherif calls the “politics of fun” in his article for Jadaliyya. Sherif points out that football has become an outlet for Egypt’s disadvantaged and disgruntled youth, a way of congregating and organizing that provided key advantages in the revolutionary moment. James Montague, author of When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone, writes in an article for The Guardian: “Egyptian football has long been a hotbed of rivalries, antagonism and politics. The game has an illustrious history with the country’s leading club, Al Ahly, having started life over a century ago, largely as a symbol against then British rule. The team name even translates as The National.”  

Indeed, under the repressive politics of the Mubarak regime, which prohibited freedom of assembly and speech under the Emergency Law, offline politics migrated to the everyday spaces of interaction including sites like churches, mosques, and–you guessed it–football stadiums. The “Ultras” as the most vehement fans are often called, refer not to one particular team but to the most active and aggressive supporters of any football club, particularly Al Ahly (Cairo) Zamalek (Cairo), and Al Masry (Port Said). And as several articles including this one in Al Masry Al Youm and this one from the National Post acknowledge the significant contribution of these extreme fans to the Egyptian Revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Memorable scenes like the battle for Kasr Al Nil bridge (see Al Masry Al Youm video here) depicted bold, fearless protesters taking on rows of armored police forces, and quite often, the Ultras were leading the charge. Quite importantly, it was not the first time that football fans were in the line of fire.  

Understanding “Ultra” Political Football 

Al Ahly football club began in 1907 as an outlet for nationalist students and anti-British sentiment that was surging against colonial rule (see the history of the Al Ahly according to FIFA). It became the long-standing rival of Zamalek SC, which was seen to represent the foreign elite. Al Masry, or “the Egyptian,” was similarly nationalistic, founded in 1920 following the revolution against British rule the year before. It represented the native Egyptian population of Port Said against the predominant teams which enjoyed expat support. Egyptian national football has always been “political” in the sense that it has been deeply embedded in the identity politics of everyday life.   The Ultras phenomenon is more recent, developing in the 1980s alongside increasing wealth inequality as a result of encroaching neoliberalism.

The Ultras are a modern reaction to the politics of complacency, of deference to foreign influences and domestic negligence of a new kind in an independent Egypt. Their occasional bouts of hooliganism, a style of organized, rowdy intimidation practiced in the streets and aimed at opponents’ supporters, brought them into regular contact with Egyptian police. Unlike many other would-be protesters in 2011, Ultras fans had developed strategies for resisting police–teargas, rubber bullets, and riot gear–and were not afraid of inevitable violent confrontations. Their near recklessness and street experience were a distinct advantage in Cairo’s urban battlefield. Al Ahly Ultras (Ahlawy) and Zamalek Ultras (the White Knights) made significant, visible contributions to revolutionary tactics and fervor, even when their strategies sometimes resulted in violent clashes in the aftermath of February 2011 (marches on the Interior Ministry and an attack on the Israeli Embassy to name two).  

Football Club Contributions to Street Politics 

1. Organization

According to FIFA, Al Ahly is one of the most organized football clubs in the Middle East. The Ultras fans of Ahly and Zamalek SC reflect this level of organization in their fan base. Fans collaborate and communicate regularly about not only game- and team-related events but also about the politics of their rivalries. The teams and their fans have webpages, Facebook groups, and Twitter accounts, and they meet in the public places of football stadiums, cafes, and street corners. The Ultras are not ad hoc swarms of disconnected fans — they are a political-athletic culture with their own organization and logic.  

2. Experience

Perhaps more than any other activists who made their way to Tahrir Square in January 2011, Egypt’s Ultras had experienced police brutality on a mass scale and had developed an awareness of how to deal with the riot tactics of the regime. Their experience with tear gas, rubber bullets, and riot lines coupled with their rowdy, aggressive disregard for authority allowed them to be not only a resource for newly mobilized protesters but also leaders in breaking through police tactics. They could meet police violence with a kind of fearless (yes, even reckless) aggression that allowed the pro-revolutionary activists to win decisive battles like Kasr al Nil bridge. They made a critical difference on the days of the worst onslaught against the peaceful protesters in Tahrir, including the day of the camel attacks.  

3. Morale

Cheering and chanting has long been an integral part of all sports fandom, and the Ultras are no exception. In the revolutionary moment, their cheers and chants became some of the most memorable rallying cries. Their revolutionary role in helping to create and maintain the ethos of revolution has been a long time in the making, as Abdul Rahman al Taliawi points out his his article for Jadaliyya about one of the Ultras’ songs “Shams Hurriya.” In addition, their presence is powerful — it is imbued with energy and passion cultivated on the pitch and mobilized and magnified to great result in the protests that toppled Mubarak.  

4. Identity

As I mentioned above, membership in a football fan club is part of the identity politics of contemporary Egypt. In a neoliberal context where many youth are unemployed and disenfranchisement and marginalization have become the norm, subaltern identities find articulation through various alternative channels — outside of mainstream socialization or politics. (And in the case of authoritarian regimes, politics is rarely appropriated to the people.) The Ultras are one site of articulation, of symbolic identity in the everyday lives of individuals (not unlike how the online membership in Facebook or the outward meanings associated with owning a smart phone create symbolic identities of their own). Many of these various identities overlap and interact — Ultras fans can be Facebook members or smart phone owners — a result of the contemporary communicative environment in Egypt.  

Offline-Online Dialectic

This is a fancy term that basically means that the offline and the online exist in relation to one another, a relation that is constantly under negotiation. The success of the 18 days of protest in 2011 that forever changed the shape of Egyptian politics was the result of a confluence of groups, individuals, expertise, and technologies. There can be no doubt that “new media” played a role in shaping the new Arab public sphere, as Marc Lynch and others call it. He writes in his new book: “The transformation that led to the Arab uprising starts with new information and communications technologies, including satellite television, the Internet, and cheap mobile phones. […] this generational, structural change in the nature of political communication represents the most fundamental and significant real effect of these new media.” Moreover, it was the normalization of these new technologies and communicative avenues in the everyday lives of Middle Eastern youth and the educated middle classes and the ability of wired individuals to negotiate the digital divide on a daily basis.

Before the revolution, online activists and dissidents in Egypt (where I have done my Master’s work) were primarily membered of this wired “elite” whose disillusionment with the regime and the political status quo led them to seek out alternative spaces of communication because the offline places of everyday life were heavily regulated and surveilled. Some activists and politically inclined individuals had offline spaces in which to congregate without excessive government intrusion or crackdown — most notably Islamists who could recruit and communicate legitimately in the context of the mosques. Football fans constituted another such demographic of potential activists — permitted to “organize” under the banner of irreverent, unruly hooliganism. Even though they faced police intervention, their physical congregation in the offline spaces of the street and sports arenas continued comparatively unimpeded.

The difference between the offline mobilizations of the Islamists and the Ultras, perhaps, lay in football fans’ frequent confrontations with security forces that gave them an organizational training of sorts in street combat. In addition, the Ultras cultivated an online presence that uniquely straddled the chasm between offline mobilization and online communication.   While many Islamist groups have only recently become more prominent presences on Facebook and Twitter, Ultras clubs have huge, well-established followings, and their pages were created as early as 2007. In addition, they often publish political information, commentary, and photos of protests. Activists I spoke with indicated that they occasionally sought out information about the revolution on the Ahly Ultras webpage, and one person indicated that the website had been taken down once when he tried to access it, possibly the result of a counterrevolutionary tactic.

Because the Egyptian revolution, like the other Arab uprisings of 2011, was the result of a confluence of motivations and circumstances ranging from the geopolitical to the technological, it is crucial to dissect the role of groups like the Ultras not only for their role in culture, identity and politics leading up to the revolutionary moment but also for their position as a group with offline mobility and online connectivity. If the Ultras’ offline actions, experiences, and tactics were their most significant and iconic contributions to the revolution, what does this mean about the importance of online space to actors with well-established offline presences? How have the youth culture of football fandom and the generational distribution of new technology use created and transformed cultural, social, and political identities among Egypt’s newly mobilized activist population? Can the politics of football, or “fun” as El Sherif put it, translate into the participatory politics at the ballot box? Looking at “offline” actors (who have always enjoyed some spatial mobility under the repressive politics of authoritarianism) and their online presence with the same scrutiny with which we have begun to analyze Egypt’s “online” actors and their post-revolutionary offline presence will yield important insights into the future of political information flows and the fate of representative politics.    

Reading List 

Lynch, Marc. (2012). The Arab Uprising. New York: Public Affairs.