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News Review

Digital Society Futures

Updated 3/3/03

This is based around a review of Digital Futures: living in a dot-com world, published by Earthscan for Forum for the Future, Mar 01. ISBN 1 85383 789 X (hardback), £19-99. The summary report was downloadable (approx 1.5Mb) from Digital Futures web site (now Digital Europe), but now gone (May 05). Orders can also be placed online by following Earthscan link from publications page..

READERS OFFER: You can purchase the above at 15 inclusive of postage in the UK ( 17 inclusive for any overseas customers) by contacting Nim Moorthy at Earthscan.


Although looking at the future of society in a 'digital future' in the broadest terms, and particularly the potential impact on the environment, this book does look at local communities, social inclusion and social capital (Note 1) too. The publication is part of the outcome of a year long study involving 12 'think-tanks' (although TCPA and Green Alliance arent usually labelled as such!), 5 government departments/agencies, such as the DTI and 15 commercial organisations. With New Economics Foundation handling the social inclusion angle, their interest in new types of money/value exchange becomes part of the possible future landscape.

Between the two chapters 'Surfing alone? E-commerce and social capital' and 'Sink or surf? Social inclusion in the digital age', there is much optimism about the role of internet and digital technology. The danger with putting this into book form is that of being overtaken by events - the closure of eGiving in January and ePledge (an American attempt at a charity eBay) a little earlier somewhat confounds their suggestions on online 'distribution networks'. They could also benefit from some of the online research undertaken by VolResource and others, which would have given them concrete examples of 'local feedback systems'.

A couple of useful pointers to how the 'internet revolution' ought to be viewed come from the Introductory overview of the 10 dot.commandments or principles they come up with (not all of relevance here). Under beyond the hype, there's hope they state that "the defining characteristic of the new economy is not technology but innovation". The principle community is alive and clicking states that their research shows that "despite fears that the internet and e-commerce will contribute to the erosion of social relationships and undermine local communities ... the trend is in the opposite direction, towards the creation of online relationships as an addition to ... existing social networks."

Some of the more thought provoking ideas:

  • think enterprise: "civic institutions can make money in the new economy by trading local knowledge".
  • think local: "using postcodes to give people information about their local environment, opening up local institutions such as primary schools to greater use and scrutiny, or undertaking street level referendums on local issues (on the latter, see Web In Practice: the Participate/Ithinkthis sites).

Where does this take the voluntary sector?

Voluntary sector studies and reports are plagued by the diversity and breadth of the organisations which might (but dont always) fall within their spotlight. With Digital Futures being published only a few days after the report Virtual Promise, which concentrated on the other end of the scale in terms of formality and size from the mainly small and fluid community organisations in the book, the need for imagination and creativity as much as resources in applying the new technology tools and networks stands out.

Our manifesto Maximising the opportunities of the Internet for the Voluntary Sector (currently in DRAFT only) gives some indication of the uses of the internet. Establishing cross-boundary links and sharing of resources to maximise overall benefit is not an easy goal to achieve, and for many there are likely to be more pressing tasks. But the possibilities from the intended 6,000 'UK online' access centres (Note 2) and other government or lottery funded projects are too exciting to ignore.


Note 1 Social Capital is defined as being made up of networks, trust and civic institutions.

Note 2 Community IT resources in all but name and the initial focus on learning/business relevant skills. See Voluntary Sector and IT