My children’s story, the Fairy Bot Mother, explores the paradox of giving voice to those offline in the online world. It emerged from a research fellowship as part of the Bristol + Bath Research + Development Amplified Publishing cohort (2021-22).
Bo is a boy without many toys or internet connection at home. Yet he loves to play and tinker. He makes a robot out of bits and bobs. Before he goes to sleep, he wishes his robot could talk and send a message to his friend. His wish brings his robot to life, the Fairy Bot Mother. Together they go on an adventure in search of better connections.
The aim of my research project was to investigate issues of inclusion and representation in socio-digital justice, with a sharp focus on digital poverty and children’s rights. Who gets seen or heard on the internet? What do you do if you need to connect and you can’t? What do you miss? In the future, perhaps you can wish for the Fairy Bot Mother to appear and listen to your needs and desires. Yet fairies will please themselves, and not all wish-granting goes according to plan.
The internet is a place of wishes and seekers, and here too, daft wishes abound. Based upon age old cautionary tales, to be careful what you wish for, the Fairy Bot Mother invites us to think deeply, increase our awareness of other’s needs, and playfully create the conditions for local mutual aid, to help make those connections, on and offline, in all of our real lives.
Why is this connection and access important? What are the implications for the future? The internet needs to hear from those not online, and from those quieter voices. The usual suspects of inequalities and divisions in global societies are mirrored and amplified in digital spaces. The nascent Artificial Intelligences (AI ) do not know enough about the lives of those excluded from digital life. The robots and machines learning about us have big gaps in their knowledge, meaning that they are not working for benefit of the global majority, both human and the rest of nature. With the pervasive impact that digital tech has across all of our lives, these gaps have big implications for justice, equality, diversity and inclusion. How can digital systems help to protect and provide for all people and species, if there is nothing about most of them in the big data sets, and they are invisible online?
One part of the solution is to increase digital access and literacy for children and young people, so that they can help to diversify online content, contribute to a digital mirror that better represents them, and amplify some planet-saving wishes. “Put bluntly, lack of internet access is costing the next generation their futures.” states Henrietta Fore, UNICEF’s Executive Director. Two thirds of all the world’s children do not have access to the internet at home (Unicef, 2020). There is a similar lack of access among young people aged 15-24 years old, with 759 million or 63% unconnected at home. Guesstimates range at approximately 90% in the UK having access. However, access is one piece of the puzzle. There are many factors involved in digital poverty, not just connection. Ellen Helsper, Professor of Digital Inequalities at LSE and author of a new book out in 2022, is clear that giving children laptops isn’t enough. Compounding factors, including affordability, safety, social capital and low levels of digital literacy, form a complex picture.
There is much to mindful about to ensure we do not bake in further exclusion, division and inequality as our use and dependency on digital tech develops. We can all contribute to the solutions, whatever our background or skills. Here are some helpful questions to consider how and why we might meet those needs:
Why does social disadvantage so often turn into into digital disadvantage?
– Will the gap between the digital haves and have-nots widen, stay the same, or get smaller as more people are exposed to tech?
– Why have we been so bad at teaching children the digital literacy they need to thrive online?
The biggest learning for me as part of this cohort is that you don’t need to be a tech geek to influence the future of tech. In fact, many voices are needed to speak up for fairness and justice and we must work across disciplines and think in holistic systems. There is a strong need for ethicists, social scientists, artists, multiple doers and thinkers to get involved.
The Future: what’s the next adventure for the Fairy Bot Mother (FBM)?
To complete the research project, published copies of the FBM story will be distributed amongst two communities in south west England, UK with high rates of child poverty, inviting responses as a small contribution to listening to lesser heard voices and understanding more about the impact of inequality in accessing online publishing. I’m excited about the possibilities for these responses to plant a seed of a podcast / radio broadcast, with equitable on/offline access, dedicated to children talking. From the mouths of babes, as it is said…. we might teach the big data sets a thing or two.
This project has generated dialogue, deeper understanding and the support to develop my ideas. As a result, I have been awarded a visiting fellowship to the University of Jyvasklya, Finland in Autumn 2022. The FBM is travelling with me to meet internationally renowned thinkers and online game developers across Finland, regarding positive ways to support inclusion and equity in children’s relationships with their environments, including play, technology, community and biodiversity. I will consider children’s future wellbeing from both top-down policy and bottom-up mutual aid angles, such as the anarchist thinking of Kropotkin and Colin Ward. I will continue to work with partners that I have met within this cohort, including an essay for a book launching the Colin Ward Centenary programme, curated by Bristol Ideas in 2023-24.
Maybe the FBM will stray into other arenas, pop up in some unexpected places, or evolve her own NFTs, algorithms or hashtags. Is she a disruptive or unifying force? There is no telling what fairies will do next, or how they might manifest. That’s half the fun, isn’t it? Perhaps, like the tooth fairy, we are all the Fairy Bot Mother, and we can all find ways to help a child look forward to tomorrow.
Read the amazing accompanying and super accessible fanzine
Check out this report on children’s digital poverty, and look out for the cohort report by Dr Amy Spencer et al on the future of online publishing.
xandtor on Unsplash
Sigmund on Unsplash
Bill Bramhall, New York Daily News, Aug. 16, 2021