All, Digital inclusion, Open University, Theory

Opening up to debates: capabilities, affordances and consequentialism

Last week I presented some thoughts on capability theory and digital inclusion at the Open University’s Society and Information Research Group.

There was a great discussion afterwards and I’d like to thank the individuals involved for their contribution. Some issues raised include the following:

  • What do we know about the way in which smartphones might be making young people vulnerable to crime?
  • Are ‘walled gardens’ like Facebook appealing environments to young people with limited ‘digital capabilities’?
  • In our gradations of digital inclusion, in future years will we be seeing more and more refuseniks who are sophisticated manipulators of their online persona’s – individuals who are politically opposed to the increasing encroachment of surveillance technologies into everyday life?
  • How might we use the theories of Foucault and Latour to understand the power dynamics experienced by marginalised young women in their interactions with the state?

All of these will feed into my research at a later date. A couple of issues were raised which I want to share some brief thoughts on here.

How do we understand the relationship between affordances and capabilities?
This last question feels very cogent for me right now as I feel that both terms provide a means to articulate the dynamics between a technology, individual agency and the state. It was suggested during the discussion that affordances (“functional and relational aspects which frame, while not determining, the possibilities for agentic action in relation to an object” (Hutchby 2001) 444) might be a means to directly interrogate a technology’s use, and that capabilities might complement this by enabling us to understand the socio-technical framework – the imbrications of society and technology, and the structures (network operators, software designers etc) which shape our uses of technology.

How does capability theory handle people’s ‘competing’ rights?
A further discussion looked at the ethical underpinnings of capability theory: the challenges of ‘ranking rights’. Alexander (2008) describes Sen’s theory as ‘broad consequentialism: a way of looking at the consequences of exercising rights. This ‘pluralistic consequentialism’ suggests that a a variety of fundamental principles can be taken into account when assessing a situation or a policy. This is set against the monistic model of utilitarian philosophy which suggests that only utility can be taken into account. Alexander shows how rights and capabilities are not equivalent – but are interdependent so without capabilities you cannot exercise rights.

All in all this discussion showed me the value of opening up work for debate and discussion at an early stage, and reminded me how lucky I am to be part of such a vibrant and challenging intellectual environment at the Open University.

Bibliography of works cited

Alexander, John M. 2008. Capabilities and social justice : the political philosophy of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, Aldershot, England ; Burlington, VT, Ashgate Pub. Ltd.

Equality and Human Rights Commission 2009. Equality Measurement Framework: 13. Participation, influence and voice, London, Equality and Human Rights Commission

Eynon, R. & Geniets, A. 2012. On the Periphery? Understanding Low and Discontinued Internet Use Amongst Young People in Britain, Nominet Trust

Hutchby, I. 2001. Technologies, texts and affordances. Sociology, 35, 441-456.

Kleine, D. 2011. The capability approach and the ‘medium of choice’: steps towards conceptualising information and communication technologies for development. Ethics and Information Technology, 13, 119-130.

Johnstone, Justine 2007. Technology as empowerment: a capability approach to computer ethics. Ethics & Information Technology, 9, 73.

Nussbaum, M. 2003. Capabilities as fundamental entitlements: Sen and social justice. Feminist Economics, 9, 33-59.

Sen, A.K. 1999. Development as freedom, Oxford University Press.

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