Inside the digital society: Digital divide or digital continuum?

I’ve never really liked the term ‘the digital divide’. Alliteration’s easy. It gains attention to an issue, which is good, but it also oversimplifies. I’ve four problems with it, really.

It’s binary, but digital access is not

First, it’s binary. It implies that you’re either on one side of a divide or on the other, a have or a have-not.

In practice, though, there’s a continuum. Some folks are heavily connected, some less connected, others unconnected. The degree of connectivity’s important.  So is the quality.

To illustrate: In the early days, data on ‘internet usage’ that were gathered by national governments for the UN agency the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) were meant to measure everyone who’d used the internet at least once within a year. That was updated a decade or so ago to usage once or more within three months. The Alliance for Affordable Internet now suggests we measure daily use.

Policy and business plans that are concerned with connectivity, usage and impact need to look at people’s desires and needs for connectivity across the board, rather than focusing just on connecting those who’re disconnected: on enabling those at all levels of engagement to achieve what they are after, while mitigating risks.

It isn’t nuanced

As we all know, there are many ‘digital divides’ concealed behind the term. Divides between countries, between urban and rural areas, between women and men, old and young, rich and poor, highly and poorly educated, literate and illiterate. There are degrees of usage that depend on where access ca be obtained, through what devices, with what bandwidth, at what price.

Simplification into a binary divide tends to flatten those disaggregations, encouraging approaches that underestimate the importance of exploring the differences in different people’s internet experience. To be effective, policies and business plans need to look at different groups on their own terms, respond to different reasons for valuing the internet and different barriers to achieving value, and to explore the relationship between those different factors.

It focuses too much on supply, too little on demand

In the early days, internet enthusiasts sometimes suggested that access alone would provide enough incentive to bring users on board. They saw the benefits for their own lives and thought they would be universal.

But society’s made up of different people living different lives. What makes the internet worthwhile to some’s not going to be important for others.

  • Many people's internet priorities - social media, gaming and online videos - are very different from those that animated ICT4D.

  • Barriers - social, economic, cultural - differ widely.

  • Not everyone's attracted by the life online.

  • Not all of those that are would put its merits above those of other things on which to spend their time or money (or can afford to).

Digital divides – or differences in digital engagement – aren’t just results of failures of supply but of distinctions in demand. Effective policies and business plans for digital inclusion will recognise that different people will have different reasons why they want or don’t want to become included.

And it isn’t static

And lastly these things are not static: they change rapidly in time. Modes of access that were innovative at one time rapidly look dated as circumstances change.

I remember, for instance, how Grameen’s village phones filled an access gap in rural Bangladesh some twenty years ago, to great acclaim, but were then rapidly eclipsed as mobile ownership expanded; how feature-phones have been displaced by smartphones, 2G by 3G by 4G, in an endless march of change to what access and connectivity have meant.

Reinterpreting what “access” means

Of course, all of these things are now well understood. There’ve been phases during the last two decades in which the digital divide’s been reinterpreted, though the term’s still widely used.

I'd see three phases in this divide's semantic evolution, built successively around the understanding of demand-side barriers, disaggregation and the quality of connectivity.

“Real access”

Some twenty years ago, around the time of the World Summit, a lot was made of what was called “real access”. That concept was developed by a think tank, no longer with us, that was called bridges.org, and it’s worth reviewing what it had in mind.

The “real access” approach it advocated recognised the role of barriers: that lack of connectivity – of infrastructure – was far from the only factor that was inhibiting the growth of internet; that demand side barriers were as important.

Bridges and others identified three factors in particular that became widely accepted, began to be researched and were increasingly incorporated in the rhetoric (at least) of public policy: affordability, content and capability. This was a big step forward in nuancing discussion and enhancing public policy on access, though these were still seen first and foremost as susceptible to digital rather than wider public policy.

A comment on “real access”

It’s true, of course, that digital interventions – cheaper handsets, cheaper data, better infrastructure – can mitigate these barriers, but they can’t eliminate them because they’re all essentially subsets of general inequality. Addressing digital inequality, as I have argued over recent weeks, depends also on efforts to address that general inequality.

  • Lack of affordability essentially results from poverty. Reduced costs lower the threshold for take-up, but for those with lower incomes data’s always going to compete with other priorities – school fees, medicine, food, electricity – within the daily spending cycle.

  • Content is complex. The lack of ‘relevant local content’ that was seen by many twenty years ago as pivotal has been met in practice by social media rather than the kind of websites pioneered by governments and NGOs as ICT4D.

  • Limited capabilities derive, substantially, from limited educational opportunities and experience. Literacy, unfamiliarity with global languages and lack of research skills aren’t easily or quickly overcome and can’t be overcome by innovation in handsets or online services (though there are ways in which those things can help).

Disaggregation

The second phase of broader understanding, I would say, was associated with recognition that different groups within society were accessing the online world to different degrees and, later, often with different priorities.

The ‘gender digital divide’ was crucial here, revealed in research by GSMA and others, and reaching the centre of debates on digital divides around the time the World Summit was reviewed by the UN in 2015.

Research on it is now increasingly concerned with its relationship with factors underlying gender inequality in general, themselves associated with differences in income and opportunity, access to education, cultural norms and attitudes.

It’s stimulated interest in more extensive disaggregation, reflecting the different experiences of social categories: of age and ethnicity, of educational attainment, of class and caste; the particular experience of migrants, refugees, those with disabilities and other disadvantaged groups. Digital sub-divides, or sub-continua.

“Meaningful connectivity”

The third phase in this history’s illustrated by the idea of “meaningful connectivity”, a term that has been gaining traction recently.

This focuses on the changing quality of connectivity and what it can enable – in particular what more can be derived from better handsets, cheaper data and more frequent use. Rather than counting any old internet as usage, A4AI (for instance) suggests policymakers should focus on four measures of what it considers “meaningful”: 4G connectivity, smartphone access, unlimited domestic broadband and daily usage of the net.

Those are much more substantial aspirations than have been articulated previously in international discourse. They’re an attempt to shift targets by a generation (of technology).

I should say, though, that I’m resistant to the use of the word “meaningful” if it implies that anything less than this is “meaningless”. 3G connectivity’s not meaningless, and nor is using the internet less often but only when it’s useful: people will make different choices here as they do with other things of value in their lives.

Digital inequality, digital divides, a digital continuum?

So: three phases of deepening understanding of digital inequalities, each adding nuance to the binary simplicity implied by ‘digital divides’.

There are continua across the board here. At one end, there are ultra-connected geeks in ultra-connected lands; at the other, those who’ve never used a mobile phone or seen a website.

In between – with varying degrees of access, usage, connectivity – lie the large majority. Their internet experience will evolve as the internet changes, as connectivity and data become cheaper, handsets and services get smarter, lives become lived more extensively online as well as offline.

Public policy on access, connectivity and usage has to be concerned with all these different experiences, and with the outcomes that derive from them.

Rather than digital divides between the haves and have-nots, I’d suggest, we should therefore think in terms of two things, which might be seen as positive and negative dimensions within different experiences of internet: ‘digital inequality’ and ‘digital choice’: underlying inequalities, digital and otherwise, that limit the digital experience that is available; and the choices people make concerning what they want and don’t want in their online worlds.

Image: By Nicolas Nova on Flickr.

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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