Inside the Digital Society: Another way to look at access and equality?

My last four blogs discussed the impact of the current virus crisis on the digital society. I’m moving for the next few weeks to other subjects, but it’s worth noting that the crisis will have an impact on every aspect of the digital society. Expect it to be mentioned.

Take access and equality, for example, this week’s theme. Increased dependence on the internet for many people has made users more concerned about their access and their bandwidth. Lack of access has accentuated concern about digital divides and digital equality, about the unconnected and the underserved.

Two views of access and equality

At its simplest, there’ve been two prevailing views about the internet’s impact on access and (in)equality since the millennium.

In the first decade and a half, most digital insiders believed that ICTs would ‘naturally’ promote equality by increasing access to information and other resources. People would use it to enhance their rights and enhance their incomes. The problem with digital divides, it was thought, was that they inhibited greater equality.

For the last five years or so, there’s been growing concern – by contrast – that the internet has so far increased inequality because it has enhanced the lives of those with access and the resources to use it while leaving those without or with less behind. The problem with digital divides, it’s now widely thought, is that they increase inequality. The corona crisis has exacerbated these concerns.

In a moment I’ll suggest another way of looking at this. But first we should remember the diversity of digital divides.

Multiple and complex digital divides

At an international level, most of the focus has been on comparing access rates for different technologies in different countries – mobile phones, 3G, the internet, broadband (as variously measured). That’s very broad brush.

For those concerned with development challenges like the SDGs, it’s divides within countries, and divides in usage, that we need to focus on (not least because they drive the divides between them). It’s simplest to identify these in terms of income: the rich have more access more quickly and do more with it more effectively. But they’re to do with more than income in reality.

Alongside poverty, digital divides need to be assessed between demographic groups within society: by gender, age and race/ethnicity; by social class and educational attainment; and by other factors that determine opportunity. And, in addition, by geography - that is, the result of different qualities of network access available in urban, peri-urban, rural and remoter areas.

Two underlying aspects of inequality

These social categories are ‘intersectional’ as well. Someone who falls in more than one of them is likelier to have less access than someone who’s just in one. Older rural women who work on farms, for example, are very much less likely to have good access in most countries – or access at all in many – than younger urban professional women.

And there are some groups that need particular attention where (in)equality’s considered. Those at the top for understanding, but those who are most marginalised especially for public policy. Groups such as indigenous communities and those who speak minority languages, migrants and refugees, those with chronic physical or mental health conditions, the housebound and the homeless. Intersectionality plays a big part here as well.

It sometimes helps to rephrase equality and inequality using terms like advantage and disadvantage. Those with most access to services – and not just digital – by and large are those with most advantages of other kinds; those with least access are those who experience or have experienced multiple disadvantage.  This is handed down through generations.

And it is as true of rich developed countries as it is of least developed countries. All countries have groups that are highly advantaged and others that are highly marginalised, as well as a continuum in access (to digital and other services) between.

What did we do about access and inequality before the internet?

When I first worked on communications policy, in the 1980s, it wasn’t access to the internet that mattered but access to telephony. That was even more unequal (in days before the mobile phone) than access to the internet is now.

Universal access strategies were commonplace then (though often ineffective). They were concerned with two things:

  • with geography – enabling landline access by extending networks into rural and remoter areas;

  • and with affordability – enabling poorer social groups to afford access to telephones, usually through public payphones.

These two goals remain relevant today – concerned with connectivity to broadband (rather than basic telephony), and with affordability. Though affordability (see above) is not the only aspect of inequality and marginalisation that ought to be considered (see below).

Focusing on inequality in general rather than digital inequality

One thing surprised and concerned me about universal access strategies back then, and does so again today – which is their lack of integration with broader policies concerned with social exclusion and inclusion.

Universal access strategies for telecoms infrastructure were rarely integrated with those for access to other utilities – water, electricity, transport, for example. With very few exceptions (some US states, few other countries), communications regulators  were entirely separate from those concerned with other services.

Yet the communities that were disadvantaged in terms of telecoms – whether rural, remote or in informal housing in big cities, were disadvantaged in those other ways as well: not just in physical infrastructure such as water and electricity but also in access to social infrastructure such as schools and clinics. An integrated approach to addressing disadvantage across the board would have made much more sense from their perspective.

And much the same was true of social inequality, for those throughout society with insufficient money or human/social capital. Policies to make telecoms more affordable were rarely integrated with those concerned with economic disadvantage or with the complex roots of marginalisation as it is experienced by the poor/homeless/less educated/non-literate etc. There’s that intersectionality again.

A new approach to access and (in)equality

This remains the case today. Efforts to address digital inequality are poorly integrated with policies that are concerned with inequality more generally. Why?

Partly, I think, it is because of the way in which digital policymakers have prioritised the potential of new ICTs for transforming aspects of economy, society and culture - their potential as 'solutions' - rather than the ways in which adoption has reflected existing economic, social and cultural patterns or interacts with them.

Yes, in some areas, ICTs can be transformative, but that potential’s not immediate and its outcomes are going to be determined as much by existing economic and social characteristics, including the current distribution of poverty and inequality, as by what technology can do itself.

It’s economic and social inequality that drives digital inequality. When people have to choose between internet access and buying food and medicine to keep their children healthy, they’re (rightly) going to choose the latter. Innovations like digital diagnostics are always going to be available more quickly and more extensively to those who have the connectivity, access and economic and social connections to take advantage of new opportunities than they are to slum-dwellers.

A suggestion

So my suggestion’s this:

  • Digital inequality should be seen, first and foremost, as an aspect of economic and social inequality, not something different or exceptional. Addressing digital divides requires us, first and foremost, to understand the economic, social and cultural divides that drive them.

  • The most effective policies to address digital inequality will be policies that address its roots in economic and social inequality. Affordability, for example, needs to be addressed from both demand and supply perspectives. Yes, cheaper handsets and cheaper tariffs are desirable and will have an impact, but reducing poverty will do more to enable digital equality in the longer term – particularly in enabling people to make more effective use of technology’s potential.

  • Digital and non-digital policymakers should respond collaboratively to the multiple disadvantage that’s experienced by less advantaged and marginalised communities and individuals. Geographically, that means addressing digital infrastructure needs alongside other infrastructure weaknesses (power, water, transport etc.), not in isolation from them. Socially, it means addressing digital divides alongside other economic and social inequalities (employment, education, health etc.), not thinking that digitalisation will resolve them.

  • Ultimately, digital and other inequalities require public policy. Market forces have been powerful agents of digital development, but they won’t reach all. Public policy measures are also needed in order to ensure inclusion, especially but not only where it’s not commercially viable. Universal access strategies, anyone?

Next week: rethinking a different aspect of the digital society, in the light of today's crisis but to meet tomorrow's needs.

Image: "Orange the World 2017 - Indonesia", by UN Women under Creative Commons.

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.


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