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I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years working on indicator frameworks that are meant to measure the digital society. I’m increasingly concerned by how reductive they are – how limited in range and purpose – and that, when measuring the digital, we miss out key aspects of the human.

This week I’ll focus on one expression of that human dimension, what’s often called well-being.

What do we measure?

Different stakeholders in the digital society measure different things for different reasons, based on their own priorities.

Commercial businesses, for example, are interested in market reach and profit margins. Social media companies focus on clicks, screen time and advertising revenue. Governments are interested in access, use, service delivery and costs; development agencies in the reach of digital technologies in sectors such as health and education; civil society organisations in affordability and rights.

You might categorise these as:

  • inputs (data on connectivity, access, usage, traffic volumes etc., of the kind published particularly by the ITU, GSMA or the AfterAccess project of RIA and LIRNEasia);

  • impacts (data on access and use in particular sectors of economy and society, such as e-government, e-commerce, distance learning);

  • and what I’ll call frameworks (assessments of normative or legal frameworks such as those concerned with cybersecurity or rights).

All of these are really important, but are they everything we should be measuring?

What’s missing?

What’s missing here, it seems to me, is human experience: how people feel as individuals about what the digital society is like for them; how it’s changing their lives in ways that are emotional rather than material; their sense of how their lives and the lives of those they care for are going to develop; in their feelings of well-being.

I’m drawn to think about this now for three reasons.

First, reading the literature. While there’s a great deal written about the internet's impact on the well-being of children and young people (for good or ill), there’s much, much less about that on the well-being of adults or groups of adults – older people, those in vulnerable social groups, the sick, the unemployed, minority communities, etc.

Second, looking at surveys. These often ask about the things that people most like online, what they find useful, valuable or fearful. They ask, too, about barriers and drivers of internet access.

But they rarely ask about how people see the impact of digitalisation on how they feel about their lives overall – or, if they do, slide by it in one question (maybe ranking out of one to ten) rather than looking into detail.

And third, reflecting on past work. Twenty years or so ago, I co-led an investigation into the early use of mobile phones in rural parts of several developing countries which included questions about the value users found in connectivity.

While some did cite material advantages – saving money, for example, on unnecessary trips to town – the most important value gains identified were really aspects of well-being. Two in particular: the ability to maintain contact with family members living elsewhere; and the ability to seek support in time of trouble. Solidarity and security, you might say.

What is well-being?

Now the concept of well-being can be nebulous, and psychology is not my field, but I’d suggest that it’s important and that we don’t give it enough attention when we think about impacts of digitalisation and policies that may shape its impact on society.

There’s an analogy perhaps in economics, here. Economists have tended to rely on hard data when measuring the impact of economies upon societies or individuals: on Gross Domestic Product or Gross National Income per head, on unemployment rates, on poverty datum lines and Gini coefficients, on rates of growth. Lately, though, some have been focusing on ways to measure softer impacts, including ‘happiness’. (I confess I’ve been a sceptic, but one open to persuasion.)

Perhaps the best way to define well-being is how one would define it for oneself. What are the factors, ask yourself, that contribute to your own well-being? They’re certainly more fundamental than the digital – and they extend far further than frameworks of rights or law can do. Here, the literature suggests, one might include for instance:

  • physical and mental health;

  • inclusion in (or exclusion from) family, community and personal relationships;

  • emotional stability and levels of anxiety;

  • levels of risk and opportunity in daily life and in the longer term;

  • personal security, whether that’s to do with income or with violence, to take two examples;

  • the level of equality and inequality experienced.

You might say that these are qualities of living that reach beyond the quality of life.

Is this relevant to digitalisation?

Well, yes, it is. Digitalisation affects people in different ways. If we want to know more about the impact of the digital upon society in general, we need to quantify the good, the bad and the indifferent insofar as we are able.

The data about digital inputs and impacts that we gather deal reasonably comfortably with big demographic groups such as those based on gender, age, locality, ethnicity, occupation, disability etc. Disaggregating into these is really valuable, really important – and a huge advance on data sets that don’t disaggregate.

But those define only some of the more visible aspects of human identity. Other, less visible aspects of experience interact profoundly with digitalisation, for good or ill, for groups of people and for individuals.

How do digital inputs and impacts relate, for example, to depression or dementia; to joyful experiences like (for most) childbirth and promotion and to high stress life events such as bereavement or divorce; to the making and breakdown of interpersonal relationships; to changing schools; to ‘coming out’; to moving from independent life to residential care?

Individuals within any demographic group will experience these aspects of life in different ways. Digitalisation might make them better for some – more fulfilling, or easier to bear, depending – but equally make them more threatening to others. Both types of impact matter. Public policy – if it’s to maximise the value and minimise the risk – needs to understand this spread of experience for individuals, not just average it in demographic groups.

There’s an especially important challenge concerning those who're vulnerable. Digital experiences can be immensely helpful to those experiencing loneliness and isolation if they open up new opportunities and connections. They can be deeply negative for those who have experienced trauma or violation, as any trolling victim can attest. Impacts on vulnerable individuals are more likely to be more intense, as well, than those on general populations.

Building a more nuanced understanding

So what I’d like those doing data gathering to consider here is how to build a better and more nuanced understanding of what digitalisation’s doing to emotional as well as to material aspects of life. This seems to me a part of recognising that digital experience is now central to human experience. You can’t measure its impact on the latter just by looking at the former. And you certainly can’t make policy decisions that maximise the value and minimise the risk of digital 'transformation' if you don’t focus on human experience.

It’s not, of course, anywhere like as easy to measure the relationship between digitalisation and well-being as it is to measure connectivity or the digital’s relationship with, say, employment, but that doesn’t mean to say it can’t be done, and certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Economists and social scientists could put more revealing questions in their household surveys, and if they can’t do that they’re quite adept at finding proxies. There’s a responsibility here, too, for the commercial businesses that run the internet today: a responsibility that must be rooted in protecting people’s privacy as well as identifying people’s needs and pursuing business profits. Well-being, they should remember, is not the same as consumer satisfaction.

Four final points

First, as I said earlier, a lot of attention’s paid, in academic study and in policy, to the digital well-being of children and young people. Research should reach out to other social groups, and then contribute to public policy – and corporate responsibility – towards them.

Second, as elsewhere, it’s important for governments and businesses to learn from those who are most directly affected, not just from independent experts. People’s own views about their life experiences are most telling, including views of the most vulnerable.

Third, governments and businesses should not assume that digital is better. Digital is different. It carries opportunities and risks for everyone. For most, it’s broadly positive; for some, it’s threatening. For more than a few, making things digital rather than analogue makes them worse, not better. A digital society that works for all should work for all.

And fourth, as in much else, COVID’s a factor here. Lockdown and isolation have increased dependence on connectivity. There’s been a lot of speculation about how that might permanently change the ways in which we organise our lives. We should be asking what it’s doing to well-being too.

Image: "Well-being", by Don Shall on Flickr 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.