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People-Environment Relationships in a Digital World


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David Uzzell
Environmental Psychology Research Group
Department of Psychology
University of Surrey
Guildford, GU2 7XH

d.uzzell@surrey.ac.uk


Introduction

The environment is not a neutral and value free backdrop to our lives (Moser and Uzzell,
2003). It is constantly conveying meanings and messages. The physical world is an integral
part of human action and is used to promote identity and to locate the person socially,
culturally and economically. For environmental psychologists, psychological processes are
always situated; that is, they are invariably place-related and place-dependent. This is no
less true of the digital world.

How will the growth in information and communication technologies (ICT) affect the future
shape and structure of the city, for example, peoples travel needs and travel patterns, work
and leisure activities? Do we really believe that the information and communication
technologies will facilitate and enhance the civility of our collective life in cities? Is the digital
world a truly participatory community or little more than a participatory illusion? How can we
ensure that the information and communication technologies are the servant rather than
master of society? These are critical questions not least of which because they intersect
with other major urban and societal concerns, such as social exclusion and sustainable
development - which are problematic in their own right without adding the patina of the ICTs.
Cities are constantly changing and have done so since the first peoples gathered to create
urban settlements in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys. Notwithstanding this, the current
changes in the structure and functions of cities are so fundamental they suggest that not
only will the form of cities change, but the very way we use cities will be transformed too.

We are all part of a digitally rich community and probably need no persuasion that the
benefits of the information and communication technologies for our work and leisure are all-
pervasive, profound and most of the times welcome. The digital technologies have resulted
in a more widely connected, more cheaply connected, and more quickly connected society
than ever before. Our actions are no longer so firmly tied to place, especially local place.
We have access to the whole world and clearly we do in ways which would have been
unimaginable 20 years ago, let alone 40 years ago when Marshall McLuhans claimed We
now live in a global village... a simultaneous happening (McLuhan and Fiore, 1967: p.63).
Our reach is global and many have the potential and facility to walk on a global stage. We
can now almost wrap our arms around the world in which we live. The growth in digital
technologies, however, presents us with several paradoxes.

Communication technologies simultaneously enhance and alienate our
communication

The ICTs paradoxically seem to simultaneously enhance but also alienate our
communication. There is a growing literature now on the effects of computers on human
relationships in which people lose touch with the world, with consequences such as feelings

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Published in Uzzell, D. (2008) People-Environment Relationships in a Digital World, Journal of
Architectural and Planning Research, 25, 2, 94 - 105.
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of loss of control and a dehumanised, dissocialised lifestyle. Do we want to hold hands or
an electronic glove? Sommer asks: Virtual images can crowd our real world interactions,
distancing people from direct physical information about the world (Sommer, 2002 p653).
Other researchers (Kraut et al. 1998; Kraut and Kiesler, 2003) have found that as internet
usage increases so there is a decline in participants communication with family members, a
decrease in the size of their family circle and increased feelings of loneliness. Later
research has suggested that the negative effect of Internet usage can be exaggerated for
those most vulnerable, i.e., although the Internet may have be beneficial for extroverts and
those with more social support it can have more detrimental effects for introverts and those
with less support (Kraut et al, 2002).

Sommer (2002) highlights the effects of what he calls aspatial technology on human space
interaction. Compared with face to face communication, online communication lacks cues
from facial expressions, eye contact, body language and interpersonal spacing. Of course,
what it also fails to provide is basic demographic information such as age and gender.
People can change their personas as well as their histories on-line and at the same time
preserve their anonymity; and as we know this has been used with malevolent intent and
harmful effect in a process of what is known as grooming.

Robert Putnam, in his book Bowling Alone (2000), argues that we have become increasingly
disconnected from family, friends, neighbours, and our democratic structures because the
social capital which is the glue that binds society together has become de-valued we
belong to fewer organizations that meet, we know our neighbours less, we meet with friends
less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. Where does social capital
come from? It comes from the daily flow of information, community support and trust,
collective action, social cohesion and identity. It is therefore somewhat ironic that the very
technologies which we assume will enhance networking and mutual connectivity come at the
very time when social networking is in decline. Rather than sharing the global village, we
now seem more likely to want to turn parts of it into gated communities. Ironically, some
aspects of the digital technologies have not only failed to arrest that decline; arguably, they
have furthered it.


The New Technologies are as likely to Disrupt as Sustain Democracy

Public disenchantment with conventional politics is now well documented. One of the most
striking features of the last 60 years has been the increasing disaffection with government
and the publics involvement in conventional democratic processes, especially the ballot box.
This is evident from the continuous fall in turnout at general elections in the UK since 1945
(The Power Inquiry, 2006). But one should not make the mistake of assuming that this is a
reflection of the publics interest in social and political issues. While voting may have
declined, people are looking to alternative means of expressing their opinions, as
exemplified by the growth in membership of, for example, environmental pressure groups
such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace and increases in pressure activity in Western
Europe and the USA (Norris, 2002; Institute for Social Research, 2003). It seems that as we
have become savvier, more worldly-wise, the more we have embraced the world both real
and through virtual travel - so we have become disillusioned with the mechanisms and
instruments for managing the world.

Now governments have seen that digital technology is not the preserve of geeks who spend
all their time locked away in their bedrooms, they have become interested in how the new
technologies can be employed to encourage and support participation, governance and
democracy. The UK e-Commerce Minister, Douglas Alexander, said at the Democracy in
the Information Age Conference in 2001: New technology will help to empower people,
encouraging them into and strengthening the democratic process (Alexander, 2001).
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The Government's Social Exclusion Unit identified the "Digital Divide" as a key action
Department for Trade and Industry, 2000). The Wired Up Communities scheme, completed
in 2003, supplied internet access to 12,000 disadvantaged homes. The objective was to
assess how individual access to the internet can transform opportunities for people living in
disadvantaged communities by developing new ways of accessing learning, work and leisure
services. Apart from finding that the majority of people involved in the scheme had little
interest in using it, the causes behind the schemes failure were more profound. As the
independent evaluation found: 'access' to the Internet is seen to be much more than
use of the necessary technology. The concept of access in the home embraces individuals'
and households resource constraints in terms of financial, motivational and skill capabilities
along with other situational factors which impact to varying degrees and at different times. It
also includes 'supply side' issues in terms of the lack of relevant content for many
disadvantaged groups. (Devins, Darlow et al, 2003).

We have started to learn the lessons now. In Shoreditch in East London a Government
sponsored scheme to the tune of 20m will make broadband available to 20,000 people, and
will be accompanied by local online services and voting mechanisms to encourage
referenda; this scheme has recognised that you need to put governance structures as well,
as relevant content in place to facilitate dialogue (Sherwin, 2005).

But a more critical look at the new media suggests that the new technologies are as likely to
disrupt as sustain democracy (Christensen, 1997), with all the implications this has for the
planning, design and management of the urban environment and the creation of more
participatory governance structures. Supposedly we now have email access to the Prime
Minister and to our local councillors; this presumably puts us closer to the seats of power,
influence and decision making. While we have some evidence that the amount of
communication between the public and politicians has increased, there is rather less
evidence that the quality of the communications has improved, and indeed the quality of
decision-making as an outcome. To what extent can we and government cope with the
sheer information overload that the digital technologies permit? The American Congress
received over 100 million emails in 2002, a figure that had doubled over the previous three
years. As has been pointed out, an institution designed for the 18
th
century now receives
more messages in one year than the whole of the 19
th
century.

But while this technology might be used to empower people and to strengthen the
democratic process, this same technology is now being employed not simply to protest
against government but to circumvent it. The instantaneous, cheap, reliable, accessible and
networking possibilities of digital technology were used highly effectively by the fuel
protestors in Britain to coordinate road blockades and widespread disruption to transport.
Protesting lorry drivers used mobile phones, e-mail and the internet to co-ordinate their
actions. The effectiveness of their activities was such that within a matter of weeks, the
principal activist, Brynle Williams, was named Britain's 254
th
most influential person
according to The Observer newspaper's 2000 Power List (BBC, 2000). Likewise, the same
technology has been used to coordinate action in the anti-globalisation protests. In May
2004, the servers of a number of German Ministries and the Chancellery were knocked out
by million emails it was not known whether it was a spam attack or a computer glitch.

We are now all switched on and connected and these digital technologies can be used, if not
to wrap our arms around the world, to at least reach across the world. But there is a darker
side when one learns that Urs Meier, the Swiss referee who denied England a goal in the
closing seconds of the quarter finals of Euro 2004 Championships, received 16,000 emails
after his email address was printed in a national newspaper some of them threatening his
life. We can now threaten and intimidate from a distance whether it is an individual football
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referee who has made an unpopular decision or a whole nation by the broadcasting on
television and the internet the beheading of kidnapped businessmen.

Improvements in communication do not simply enable us to transport ourselves, our words
or our parcels from A to B more quickly. The translation of people, objects and ideas has a
more profound impact. In 1830, when it was 12 noon in London, it was still only11.50 in
Bristol, a city just over 100 miles to the west. Whilst travel and communications were slow,
these local time differences were of little importance, and most towns and cities in Britain
used local time. The mail coach took 20 hours to make the journey between London and
Bristol in 1840. By 1856 the Great Western Railway reduced the journey time to three
hours, and at the same time the railway companies were using William Cooke and Charles
Wheatstones invention of the electric telegraph to communicate information across the
country in a matter of seconds. Now, the worlds largest and most complex satellite can
transmit the contents of a 20-volume encyclopaedia - 24,000 pages of 48 million words - in a
single second.

Each communications revolution has provided governments with a new set of instruments of
control. The movement of people, goods and ideas with such rapidity changes ones ideas of
what is local and of the spaces and places to which one can relate. The advent of the
steamship enabled the mass emigration by poor Europeans to America and elsewhere, and
helped European states to maintain global empires. For a nations citizens, the coming of
railways, the telegraph, and the steamship enabled its people to relate to the nation state
more readily. But our communication technologies are now global. While this may lead to a
loosening of local and national ties, does it correspondingly mean we have become global
citizens? One had to look no farther than across our own sitting rooms to the televised
millennium eve celebrations broadcast from the capital cities of the world and remote islands
in the Pacific Ocean to realise that on 31
st
December 1999 it was party time in the global
village. The fall of the wall and perestroika in the 1990s only seemed to confirm the view
that global peace, if not global governance in some form, might be a possibility.

But these feelings of one-worldness and a new global neighbourliness by the West as we
entered the 21
st
century have been tempered by an increasing concern about Third World
debt and unfair trade agreements, the economic and employment consequences of
globalization, the inter-generational and inter-species implications of genetic engineering,
and international responsibility for ethnic atrocities. And then, of course, there was
September 11
th
2001. It is quite clear that Al-Qaeda, in addition to demolishing several
skyscrapers, destroyed once and for all the idea - or perhaps delusion - that we are living in
a consensual world of shared values.

There has been comparatively little environmental psychological research to date on the
impact of the information and communication technologies on people-environment
relationships. Environmental psychologists might draw on any number of concepts to
analyse the contribution of the information and communication technologies to the civility of
the city which is after all the raison dtre of urban life. This paper concludes by drawing on
three concepts which are not unique to environmental psychology but which play an
important part in our analysis of people-environment relationships: social interaction, social
cohesion and personal space.


Social Interaction at the Agora

The urban historian, Lewis Mumford, described cities as the most precious collective
invention of civilisation, second only to language itself in the transmission of culture
(Mumford, 1961). Social interaction was and remains a defining requirement of city life.
One central place where interaction occurred was the market, the agora (Gumpert and
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Druckner, 1992). The agora was the dynamic centre of the Greek city. The agora was
always more than a place simply for doing business. It was described by Homer in The Iliad
as a place of assembly where the town folk were gathered. It was where people came to
sell their agricultural surpluses, to trade manufactured goods and crafts. But more
importantly, it was where people gathered .to have a palaver. to use Mumfords
wonderful expression (Mumford, 1961, p149). The market place was where one came to
meet, to exchange news, gossip and opinions, to see old friends, to pass the time of day, to
be a flneur.

One might identify three major stages in the development of the agora. The first is the one I
have just described where its social function stood equal to its commercial role for some
3000 years. In the latter half of the 20th century the urban form started to change
dramatically as economic activities moved from the centre of cities to the periphery what is
known as Edge City (Garreau, 1991; Rowe, 1991). The rise of out of town shopping
centres and malls challenged the very qualities of civic-ness. Of course, the designers of
shopping malls have endeavoured to mimic the essential features of the city. Indeed,
architects may claim that shopping malls imitate the finest urban traditions with their wide
pedestrian boulevards and public sculpture, their atria with fountains and seating predictably
labelled the plaza or piazza.

The replacement of communal culture by corporate culture, and the displacement of public
spaces by private ownership ultimately mean that appropriation of space by people in
shopping malls is invited by design but denied by management; people cannot develop the
relationship with the place as they would in a public/communal space (Uzzell, 1995). We
know from research that malls play a crucial role in the social life of various groups who are
often marginalised in our society, for example, the young and the elderly; it provides social
spaces which facilitate the development of fledgling communities - spaces which such
groups often have most difficulty accessing. Yet by design or management every attempt is
often made to exclude these groups if they are not contributing to the commercial goal. And
so the social places and social moments that the 20
th
century agora offers are being
reduced.

The third major development has been the advent of what one might call the electronic
agora and the rise of internet shopping. On eBay it was predicted that in 2005 at least 30
million people would buy and sell well over $34 billion of merchandise. If eBay were a
national economy it would represent the 59th largest economy in the world, just behind
Kuwait (Miller, 2005). In the first quarter of 2007, 82.9 million eBay users sold $14.28bn of
items (BBC, 2007). More than 150,000 people earn a living from simply trading on the
internet. Tesco.com is, according to its latest Annual Review (2005), the worlds largest
online supermarket with sales of over 719m (1056m/$1441m), an increase of 29% over
the previous year. With a million customers registered for online shopping, every week in
the UK they receive about 150,000 orders which are then delivered by over 1000 delivery
vans.

Public spaces in the city were where people gathered to be citizens. The function of public
space is, as Sunstein (2001) reminds us, to provide both unexpected encounters and
common experiences. When we live in the digital city, do we have these unexpected
encounters and common experiences? Or are these are at best shallow and pale imitations
of the kind of experiences which are the mark of urban life? There is much about the new
electronic agora that is of value, but equally we must not lose sight of the social costs there
is nowhere and no one in this market place to meet, to exchange news, gossip and opinions,
to see old friends, to pass the time of day, or to be a flneur.


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Social Cohesion, Community and the Neighbourhood

Community and neighbourhood have long been seen as important elements in the
superstructure of urban life. They have lain at the heart of thinking in urban planning since
Ebenezer Howards Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1902) if not before, and are currently
central to UK Government policy with regards to neighbourhood renewal. Gilchrist (2004)
draws our attention to the fact that while a social capital approach to community
development sounds good in theory, many community networks are characterised by
inequalities, and that the norms and expectations which flow from the mechanisms of social
capital may be oppressive for some even though they are empowering for others. The same
inequalities that exist in relation to place or interest-based communities are no less likely in
the digital city. Indeed, they are likely to be attenuated, especially as those who do not have
access to the digital city are likely to feel increasingly disempowered and excluded. It is very
easy to be taken in with the warm, inclusive communitarian language of the network city and
virtual communities, but virtual communities can perpetuate the same kinds of injustices and
segregation as any other place-based community.

If the community development approach is to be the social policy of choice because
government believes that communities can contribute to the design, development and
delivery of services and as a consequence enable social cohesion and inclusion, we must
ensure that this squares with other policies which advocate the empowering possibilities of
the new technologies. There is a danger that wiring up the city will be seen as a panacea for
the structural failings of society that lead to social exclusion and the existence of
disadvantaged communities. At best it is only part of the jigsaw. The focus must be on
people and people and their physical surroundings.

For example, the Rural White Paper (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs,
2000) argues that the countryside should be regarded as a valued and accessible resource
that has enormous potential for improving the quality of life of residents and visitors alike.
However, it is quite clear that there are a number of groups in society who are under-
represented in countryside visiting statistics, including ethnic minorities, the disabled, the
elderly, those on low incomes, young people, women and those from inner city areas.
Considerable efforts have been made over the years to remove the structural as well as
psychological barriers experienced by groups who are not currently visiting the countryside.
These policies and strategies are not working. A major piece of research has recently been
completed for the Countryside Agency looking at how local authorities and other countryside
access providing organisations can encourage and facilitate access for under-represented
groups and address this issue of social exclusion at an institutional and organisational level
(Uzzell, Leach and Kelay, 2005).

An Area-Based Action Research project (ABAR) that is part of the Diversity Review
(Countryside Agency, 2005) research programme is called Beyond the Boundary, and is
trying directly to address the issue of social cohesion in a fractured society. Young people
from South Asian communities who live in the Manningham Ward district of Bradford, an
area that experienced riots in July 2001, have identified cricket as a shared interest with
young people who live in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. But this project is more than
just about playing cricket; preconceptions about the different communities are being
challenged and cricket is being used successfully as a method to encourage integration and
social cohesion. This is exemplified by family members who have accompanied the players,
and have both watched the cricket as well as taking part in a range of local activities and
visits to places of interest. The project offers a chance to make connections with other
young people, to experience and engage with difference, to build up confidence in visiting a
strange environment the countryside for the Asian youths and inner city Bradford for the
Yorkshire Dales young people. This kind of action with the range of benefits which are
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already flowing from the project cannot be achieved on the internet or through the use of the
other digital technologies: it is about people interacting with other people in a specific place.

Community networking and action can lead to social cohesion, participation and improved
and rewarding forms of democracy. Indeed, we have strong evidence of this in Guildford
such that an enhanced sense of social cohesion and place identity is more likely to lead to
positive attitudes towards sustainability behaviours (Uzzell, Pol and Badenas, 2002). What
we do not have evidence for is that this can be achieved through the digital technologies.
Quite the opposite, there is a risk that the rise of the digital city will lead to a kind of
placelessness, in which social ties, and in particular, social ties to place could weaken if not
disappear. We will belong to everywhere and nowhere. Social capital theory would argue
that social disorganisation is a consequence. What might this mean in practice?
Neighbourhoods bankrupt of social capital are less likely to achieve the common values,
neighbourhood satisfaction, and a degree of group and place identity that fosters pride,
community esteem and self-protection which in turn leads to the social controls that
encourage safety and security.

In the area of environmental criminology, Wilson and Kelling (1982) have put forward the
broken windows hypothesis. This proposes that if physical and social disorder occurs in a
neighbourhood and fails to receive an adequate remedial response this will cause further
crime to occur. It is not long before neighbourhoods experience a decay spiral (Skogan,
1990) whereby the toleration of or failure to intervene against apparently trivial acts of
disorder may lead to an escalation of serious crime being committed in the area. An
increase in crime leads to the de-stabilising of a sense of order which in turn creates further
anxiety. A combination of metaphorical broken windows coupled with a failure by residents
to take responsibility for their neighbourhood leads to a diminishing sense of community, the
accumulation of roadside waste, an increase in vandalism and crime, and soon a stable
neighbourhood turns into a dilapidated area. As incivilities increase and as the
neighbourhood declines, so residents gradually leave. One suspects that as our digital
lifestyles assume more significance then so it becomes easier for us to withdraw and live our
lives in a virtual neighbourhood. While there may be no obvious broken windows in the
virtual neighbourhood, in the real world outside the neighbourhood may be falling apart.


Personal Space and the Etiquette of Place

In the second volume of Philip Pullmans (1998) trilogy His Dark Materials, Will Parry is given
what is called the subtle knife, after which the second volume is entitled. Will is told that by
gently feeling with the tip of the knife, he can detect a snag in the empty air.. the smallest
little gap in the world. He can then cut his way through open a window in the air and
move from one universe to another. This is a wonderfully imaginative and intriguing idea.
Pullman is suggesting that universes co-exist in the same space we cannot see them but
they are there, adjacent to our universe. As we walk along the street it is commonplace to
see people take out their subtle knives and carve their way into another universe; their
subtle knives are, of course, their mobile phones, the subtle mobile. People are developing
new behaviours as a consequence of mobile phone use that almost mimic the idea of
stepping into other spaces and universes of interaction. The use of technology not only
alters the way we interact with others but also changes the way we relate to our surrounding
environment. Without the visual cues of the bent elbow and the handset and with the use of
Bluetooth technologies mobile phone users now walk along the street seemingly talking to
themselves and communicating with other worlds. The way mobile phones are used allow us
to step imperceptibly from one universe to another. Wimbledon is arguably the most
esteemed tennis competition in the world. It is watched by just under 14,000 spectators on
Centre Court and millions worldwide on TV. What was the first thing that Maria Sharapova
did when she won Wimbledon in 2004 she called for her mobile and phoned her mother.
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Despite the noise, the excitement, passion, the occasion, by taking her mobile phone, the
subtle mobile, she was able to step through into another universe.

Lasen (no date) conducted an ethnographic study of mobile phone use in London, Madrid
and Paris, examining social action and technology use in the context of culture and place. In
Madrid and Paris young mobile phone users are more willing to talk in the middle of the
pavement than in London, where streets are mainly transient places; the younger the users
the less they are bothered about being overheard. But as Lasen notes, in London mobile
users seem to create temporary phones zones, improvised open-air wireless phone booths,
where several people, unaware of each other, stop in the same place to make a call.
Despite the willingness to occupy the central spaces in pavements, French users are more
exercised by hearing other peoples [private] conversations as they feel forced to know
things they do not wish to be a party to; mobile users seem to forget there are other people
around, in other words, they occupy their own universe oblivious to the presence, needs and
sensibilities of others. This, of course, extends to the intrusion of ring tones into public
spaces. Mobile phone sounds, both ring tones and conversations, are a part of the new
urban soundscape of public transport, restaurants, cinemas, shops and the street.

The ubiquity of digital technology (e.g., wireless networks, internet connected laptops,
mobile phones) means that there is now a blurring between private and public spaces. Work
that used to be done in private spaces can be done anywhere. Mobile phones are used with
a degree of mindlessness that used to be reserved for scratching your head or blowing your
nose. They have become part of the routine of leaving the house wallet, keys, mobile.

The digital technologies are changing the way we perceive and use spaces and places; they
are adding new repertoires of behaviour and redefining the etiquette of place. For example,
queuing behaviour is now changing as a consequence of the new technologies moving onto
the high street. Whereas the convention in most queues is to line up with minimal distance
between individuals, with the introduction of ATMs in public places it is now seen as
inappropriate behaviour to stand close to someone in this kind of queue because there is the
suspicion or implication that you might be trying to note their PIN number or how much
money they are taking out of the machine.


Conclusions

Clearly the rise of the ICTs has brought many advantages to all sections of society and all
parts of the globe. But it should come as no surprise to conclude that the benefits and as
well as the disbenefits are unequally distributed, capitalised upon and felt. In March 2005,
the United Nations launched the Digital Solidarity Fund which will finance projects that
address the uneven distribution and use of new information and communication
technologies and enable excluded people and countries to enter the new era of the
Information Society. The rationale for this programme is the digital divide represents a
factor of exclusion from global exchange processes, restricting the development of
intellectual capital and slowing down economic growth. More generally, the digital divide
dangerously increases the lack of understanding between cultures and civilisation (United
Nations, 2005).

In the middle of the last century the introduction of railways was seen as a critical catalyst for
many development schemes in Africa. It was thought that if we build a railway into the bush,
development will follow. It is no coincidence that we are still strongly wedded to the idea that
the levers for development should centre on communication. The information and
communication technologies are obviously important, but we have to get all the other facets
of society right. Whether we are talking about the digital divide in the inner city or in the
Third World, simply wiring up communities neither increases communication nor guarantees
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the benefits of communication. The digital divide is not the problem. The problem is one of
income, development and literacy as The Economist highlighted (2005). Fewer people in
poor countries have computers because on the one hand they are too poor, they are
illiterate, and they do not have an electricity supply; and on the other hand they have more
pressing needs that usually coalesce around the word survival food, health care, housing
and as we have seen recently in many parts of Africa, security. A slightly different message
emerged from the evaluation study undertaken on the Wired-Up Communities project in the
UK. It is assumed that people do not use the internet because they do not have access to it.
Surveys have found that 35% of people know where to get online for free but chose not to. It
is also assumed that those in deprived areas have the most to gain and that somehow, by
means of an electronic wand, simply giving access to the information and communication
technologies will open up employment opportunities and eat into all the other structural
factors that lead to social exclusion. While access to ICT may be valuable and contribute to
the general infrastructure of community resources, whether it is through provision of the
means of communication or the enhancement of skills, it can only be one small part of a
structural response. As Oakley recently argued we need to connect digital policies with real
polices with jobs and growth, community and economic development we have one set of
policies for the market and another for social and community development (Oakley, 2005,
p1). One consequence or particular perspective on this is that digital policies need to be
connected to physical world policies.

But these difficulties are not insuperable. As we come to understand the social, political,
economic and psychological infrastructural requirements of effective communication, so
these to can be planned and provided for along with the hardware. At present there are
serious dislocations between the local and the global, and the social, economic and the
technological and these will not be addressed by technology but by people. The drivers for
information and communication technological change should be a deliberative political
process. We have to ensure that policy-making is pro-active rather than re-active. In other
words, instead of the technology deciding what sort of society we want to create and how the
information and communication technologies can help us to get there, the reverse happens.

If environmental psychology research has taught us anything it is that spatial propinquity
fosters social contacts and friendship formation, individuals experiences with particular
places constitute an important part of self identity, and involuntary relocation from a familiar
neighbourhood often provokes emotional distressed illness symptoms (Stokols and Montero,
2002). To these three foundational findings from environmental psychology research, we
might add the centrality of context; the environmental setting is not a neutral and value free
space, it is culture-bound. It is constantly conveying meanings and messages and is an
essential part of human functioning and an integral part of human action. Our perceptions,
understandings, attitudes and behaviours in respect of the environment are forged in the
environment as are our social relationships informed, nurtured and sustained within the
environment. The assumptions that society as well as environmental psychologists make
about people-environment relationships will clearly be challenged as we come to terms with
the digital world, in particular with the growing dominance of a seemingly placeless society
and spaceless relationships.

As Giddens writes, The spaces of social and cultural relations and interactions have
become divorced from the distinctiveness of geographically and socially situated places
(Giddens, 1990, p53). Technology serves to lift our social activity from localised contexts,
reorganising social relations across large time and space distance. A more extreme position
is taken by Wellman who argues that Computer-supported communication will be
everywhere, but because it is independent of place, it will be situated nowhere The
person--not the place, household or workgroup--will become even more of an autonomous
communication node. Contextual sense and lateral awareness will diminish (Wellman,
2001, p229).
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The removal of social activity from its place context is not just another way of carrying on our
social relationships. The nature of our social relationships must inevitably change because
as we have seen place and space the environmental context of our social engagement is
an integral part of who we are and what we do. It is noteworthy that there has been
increasing concern expressed in the media about the new 21
st
century crime identity theft.
Identity theft has existed for some time, and usually involved individuals scrabbling around in
trashcans extracting old credit card slips. The digital revolution has enabled such theft to be
carried out from the comfort of a hackers home with the collection of hundreds if not
thousands of identities at a time. Having hacked into a database of personal details (e.g.,
name, address, social security, drivers licence), new identities are sold on so that they can
be used to acquire goods and services and crime committed. For example, in early 2005,
Reed Elsevier (2005) reported that 32,000 names on their databases had been stolen by
hackers. But such identity theft is only the one side of a formula which sees people and
environment in a symbiotic relationship with each other. There is another theft which is no
less significant and potentially affects far greater numbers of people. With the growth of
information and communication technologies places are being stolen right from under our
noses. It is so insidious that many people do not realise they have been a victim until long
after the thief has taken possession of the prize. The theft is place. Place theft is not a
victimless crime; we are all victims.



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Additional information may be obtained by writing directly to the author at Department of
Psychology, University of Surrey, Guildford, Surrey, GU2 7XH, UK.







Abstract

Information and communication technologies present us with a series of paradoxes. On the
one hand, by aiding the communication process they promise to bring us all closer together,
yet all the evidence is that social exclusion rather than inclusion is the consequence.
Likewise, the digital technologies give us access to more information from which we can
make informed choices, yet all the evidence is that people use the internet, for example, to
find information that supports their views narrowing rather than widening their horizons.
Finally, governments are increasingly interested in how they can use this technology to
encourage and support participation, governance and democracy, but again, the evidence is
that digital technologies are now being employed not simply to protest against government
but to circumvent and challenge it. It seems that as we have become more worldly-wise
both real and through virtual travel - so we have become disillusioned with the mechanisms
and instruments for managing the world. This paper explores each of these issues and
concludes with a discussion of the implications of digital technologies for place and people-
environment relations in the city, for example, in relation to crime, the use of space and what
is referred to as the etiquette of place.