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Research

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Rethinking the digital divide: the software-sorted society

A research project of the Department of Geography.

Background

New Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) are generally portrayed in our society as means of overcoming the barriers of time and space. The dominant depiction of the so-called ‘information society’ stresses such technologies as new, ‘friction free’ means of connecting people, institutions and spaces which ‘speed up’ and improve the functionality of all manner of services in the process. And yet it is increasingly clear that ICTs can create disconnections as well as connections. They can be used to ‘slow down’ and add ‘friction’ to people’s lives, making them logistically more difficult. And they can facilitate the withdrawal of services from people and communities and the worsening of their opportunities.

Users of public and infrastructural services have long been sorted and prioritised by the bureaucracies of providers. But, as such practices are augmented, or replaced, by ICTs, software-based techniques, linked to computer databases, increasingly sort users automatically (i.e. without human discretion), continually (i.e. 24 hours a day), and in ‘real time’ (i.e. without delay). The inherent flexibility of ICT-based sorting can allow enhanced functionality to be offered to those deemed attractive. At the same time, less attractive users and communities, or those deemed to be risky in any way, can be electronically ‘pushed away’.

Successfully employing software-sorting techniques can clearly advantage service and infrastructure providers as they strive, in the context of widespread privatisation, to maximise profits and returns on investment whilst minimising exposures to risk. Software-sorting techniques are increasingly being harnessed by managers of public spaces (shopping malls and town centres) and providers of infrastructure (utilities, transport and telecommunications). As a result, in the UK, software now organise everything from call centre phone queues, the prioritisation (and stalling) of Internet traffic, the identification and tracking of those deemed ‘risky’ or ‘threatening’ on commercial shopping streets, people’s access to premium (electronically-tolled) areas of urban roads, the allocation of financial and insurance services, the geography of shops and bank branches, and the experience of energy markets.

And yet software-sorting remains poorly understood and under-researched in both the humanities and the social sciences. Whilst software-sorting supports a complex range of ‘digital divides’ in UK society both research and policy tend still to equate the ‘digital divide’ solely with uneven access to the Internet. The imperative for social research is thus to try and expose the very ‘innards’ of the usually opaque and hidden worlds of software code that continuously, invisibly and automatically helps to define the structuring of opportunity and constraint in our society. This is a profoundly interdisciplinary challenge. It lies at the interstices between sociology, criminology, geography, anthropology, urban studies, law, technology studies, computer science and information and communications studies. Research success here will demand iconoclastic and creative thinking which pays little respect to the ‘silos’ of traditional disciplines, which have done so much to inhibit progress so far.

This British Academy Readership project aims to meet this interdisciplinary research challenge. It will address the four key questions raised by the software-sorted society:

  • In what ways are software-sorting techniques exploiting the powers of software-based surveillance? Some preliminary evidence suggests that software-sorting techniques are being used to automatically allocate different users of the same space, service or network services diametrically-opposed quality simultaneously. But how exactly does this happen and what categorical structures are constructed to allow such practices to operate?
  • How do the social assumptions that drive software-sorting techniques become embedded in to the computer code that makes them work? Where does this encoding happen? Is this done continents or years away from the actual practices of application ‘on the ground’ in major research and development spaces and ICT service corporations? To what degree do UK users of software-sorting systems simply buy their systems as ‘black boxes’ with embedded software and social assumptions ‘off the shelf’? Do UK users modify, or shape internally, their software-sorting systems and to what degree are the socially-sifting algorithms within them explicitly defined in relation to broader customer care, ethical or corporate responsibility policies?
  • Are software-sorting techniques helping to support a more polarised society? Is an ‘electronic underclass’ emerging as those deemed risky or unprofitable are automatically, continuously and subtly scrutinised or excluded from services, infrastructures and spaces? Are providers concentrating on enhancing the quality of life, functionality and power enjoyed by highly profitable users and neighbourhoods? Do software-sorting techniques work in parallel across different sectors to marginalise and empower broadly the same groups of people and communities?
  • Finally, what are the social and political implications of the software-sorted society? What do these practices mean for citizenship and social and geographical (in)equality in contemporary British society? How are different domains of public policy and regulation addressing the challenges of software-sorting and what more needs to be done?

Aims

This project aims to ‘get inside’ the software code that helps to organise contemporary society. It will be the first in the UK to develop a detailed, cross-cutting analysis of the social and political implications of techniques that use software to sort people’s opportunities. As a way of re-thinking the ‘digital divide’ the project will analyse the ways in which automated software-based services, networks and spaces are automatically privileging some users whilst marginalising others. This will be done through case studies of the software-based management of commercial streets (digital CCTV), and computer and communications systems (call centres and the internet).

Methods

The project will have four stages:

  • Stage 1: In-Depth Contextual Analysis. This will be based on trawling relevant policy, academic, and ‘grey’ and published industry sources, to establish the extent and precise nature of the state-of-the-art of software-based sorting in different sectors.
  • Stage II: General Analysis of Software-Sorting Systems A series of interviews with key research and development organisations, software companies, industry representatives, operators, regulators and policy makers in each case study sector to identify and ‘unpack’ in detail the social configurations of software-sorting systems. This will highlight the cutting-edge of research and development, and to identify the extent of diffusion on these practices across the UK.
  • Stage III: In-Depth Case Studies of Exemplar Cases. Site-specific analysis of an exemplar, leading-edge case of software-based practices in each sector (identified in Stage II). This will be based on intensive interviews and archival analyses with service providers, policy makers, and local user representatives, to identify the social configurations of software in each case, the intended and unintended effects of software-based systems in practice, and the limitations surrounding their actual use.
  • Stage IV: Identifying Research Implications Interviews with representatives of users and citizens (activist organisations, lobbyists) as well as think-tank representatives, politicians, academics and industry representatives, to identify the implications of the project’s findings and to highlight how public policy, regulation and research must respond.