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date: 31 March 2020

(p. 471) Introduction

(p. 471) Introduction

This part addresses the social aspects of ICTs from the perspective of their significance for experience and practice. They are seen principally as resources for social, political, and personal action, and as having consequences for the ways in which cultures form and change. Each chapter in its own way offers a version of the dialectic at the heart of technological and social change, recognizing that understanding its complexity is also a matter of understanding its variety and its instability.

Graham and Goodrum in Chapter 20 take a long term overview, both historical and predictive, of how literacies emerge and change with the emergence of new media. In their account, which draws on critical discourse analysis as well as on the political economy of ICTs, literacy is a matter of the capacity to participate in public discourse, and to command it. In this sense literacy is both a political project and a pedagogic one, but it ultimately resides in the capacity of individuals to be able to mobilize the resources for effective participation in the changing cultures of an increasingly technology‐dependent world.

Livingstone picks up these themes in Chapter 21 by focusing much more directly on the capacity of young people to use the Internet in a creative way. The skills required bring the young greater access to a world of information and communication, but they also bring greater risks. This would always have been the case, of course. However, Livingstone focuses on youthful experience of the Internet to argue for the significance of a continuing divide between those with and those without the relevant skills, but also, more significantly, between those who can and will engage with the resources available online in creative and participative ways, and those who, for one reason or another, cannot.

Questions of literacy raise questions of the nature of the relationship between what goes on on ‐line and what off ‐line. Orgad reviews the wide range of areas where this agenda has been identified, but in each case where it still needs further discussion: in e‐commerce, in journalism, in civil society, but above all in the fine grain of action in everyday life. In Chapter 22 she argues that it is still the case that thinking is dominated by a kind of ‘two‐realm’ approach, which will consistently fail to understand the intensity of their interrelationship. What is required is a political economy which stresses the materiality of power inscribed across both domains, and a broadly ethnographic perspective, where, likewise, there is every intention of exploring the mutual contextualization of life which is simultaneously both on ‐line and off.

This is a theme that underpins both of the chapters that follow, the first on the significance of ICTs for political movements, and the second on the formation and sustaining of community. Downing and Brooten address the first in Chapter 23. (p. 472) They review the key theoretical issues relevant to an understanding of the changing nature of ICTs and contrary politics: the public sphere, counter‐hegemony, and civil society. And they then discuss a number of significant case studies of alternative political mobilization, spanning a range of media from community radio to mobile telephony and the web, and of specific cases where these technologies have been utilized in situations of direct mobilization as well as sustained engagement in alternative politics at local, community, and global levels.

So it is not just the relationship between online and offline action and discourse which is at issue. There is also an inevitable tension between global and local levels of communication and action which ICTs dramatically bring to the fore. Jung, Ball‐Rokeach, Kim, and Matei discuss these in Chapter 24 in the context of community, where once again the tendency in the literature is to offer a polarized dystopian or utopian account of the significance of ICTs. In an age of rapid social change and increasing social and geographical mobility, the capacity to use the Internet creatively is in great degree determined not by the technology, but by the social, economic, and political resources available to communities and networks on the ground.

The final chapter addresses the complex and subtle agenda of identity, and of the relationship between identity and inequality. Wajcman's focus on gender, and in particular on the significance of ICTs for the role, status, and empowerment of women, also reviews the polarized debates that have defined much of the discourse thus far. In the realms of education and work, above all, it is clear that there has been a sustained regime of inequality across the sexes in both access and participation. On the other hand, arguments have emerged that have suggested that ICTs have the capacity to liberate women from their dependent status in technological environments. Wajcman argues against such essentialism and determinism to explore a more synthetic and sympathetic techno‐feminism, one that requires the rejection of the polarities of many of the arguments around gender and technology in favour of a more sociologically and historically sophisticated account of their mutual determination.