Community, Relationships and the Digital Future

The digitalisation of industry will doubtlessly bring many benefits to the UK economy. A study focusing on broadband penetration conducted by Booz & Company in 2012 showed that a 10% increase in digitalisation led to a 0.6% increase in GDP. The amount of jobs in sectors such as business services is expected to increase, together with a streamlining of procedures, making the economy more efficient and increasing GDP. These are of course benefits that a forward thinking Labour Party must embrace in the interests of the British economy.

There are nevertheless concerns regarding the implications of the so-called fourth industrial revolution. Advances in technology have historically been followed by vast changes in the structure of society. The first industrial revolution is renowned for reorganising agrarian Britain into an urbanised industrial centre. The progressive changes seen at the time were not uncontested, however: the Luddite movement, where men took to destroying machinery in fear of loosing their professions and culture, is here most relevant at hand.

Digitalisation is not likely to be a historical exception. Society is facing momentous change in the methods of social interaction and communication. A 2015 report published by Ofcom reported that 93% of people in Britain have a mobile phone, 66% of which are smartphones.

Notwithstanding the economic benefits of digitalisation, the changes in social interaction, implicated in the enhanced communicative ability of the British people, risks negatively affecting British communities and public services. A sociological study conducted by Pennsylvania State University in 2008 found that the use of mobile phone technology has a negative impact on social skills, preventing people from reaching out to those in immediate proximity.

Yet the prospects of social cohesion in a digitalised world are not necessarily sombre. A 2007 KPMG report illustrates that the greater connectivity allowed for by digitalisation has created new online communities. Individuals of similar interests are now able to connect with one another regardless of their geographical location. The report also shows, however, that these individuals, connected to online communities, are less likely to reach out to those in their immediate local community.

This presents problems for community cohesiveness, with different age and ethnic groups interacting less with one another. Statistics given by the GlobalWebIndex can illustrate this with the world average amount of time spent on social media increasing from 2 hours per week in 2012 to 6 hours in 2014. The trends investigated by the KPMG report show a 30% decrease in amount of contact time younger age cohorts of 16-25 have with older age cohorts of 35-45, from 1975 to 2005.

Public services will also be increasingly affected by digitalisation. Whilst certain services, such as social care, have benefited from digitalisation, in helping care workers to provide more efficient and attentive services with new technology, there are fears that digitalisation may negatively affect human interaction in public services.

In 2013 the Conservative Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, supported proposals for GP online virtual chat sessions to be implemented under the NHS. These were intended to cut costs and allow more patients to be examined per GP. There were concerns, however, that patients would receive less attentive care and have a reduced propensity to being physically examined. These proposals are still yet to be implemented. There are, however, natural fears that increasingly digitalised public services, which strive for efficiency, will be less human and less concerned with the needs of the public that use them.

If the Labour Party is to create a successfully digitalised Britain of the future it must both embrace the economic benefits of digitalisation and commit to the protection of British communities and public services. Suggestions of how to achieve these aims may take into consideration the Australian governmental scheme the “Diversity and Social Cohesion Grant”. The grant gives increased funding to local organisations, proven to promote cohesiveness through community actions such as multicultural festivals. Regarding the protection of public services approaches to digitalised changes needs to be user-orientated. The process of digitalisation must take into consideration the needs of those who use services such as the NHS. Digitalising public services at the expense of those who use them cannot be endorsed under the auspices of increasing efficiency.

A Labour Party, which considers the concerns and points raised, is sure to create a forward thinking and humane digitalised Britain.

David Robinson is a volunteer writer for Future Labour.

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