This is my second blog about the corona crisis and the digital society. That’s clearly going to be a recurrent theme over the year. It’s important that we focus on the present and the future: what the digital can do today; what it can do in recovery.
This week, something about inequality, the internet and the corona crisis.
It’s digital divides (plural)
I’ve been thinking lately, for an international organisation, about the nature of online inequality. About digital divides and their relationship with inequality more generally.
We’ve used that term, the ‘digital divide’, since the 1990s, but I sometimes think we’re only just beginning to understand it clearly.
There’s not one digital divide but many. Not just between countries but within countries, as we’ve recognised for years, but also within those social and economic groups that experience disadvantage, discrimination, marginalisation. There’s a continuum rather than a dividing line between the haves and have-nots.
It’s clear in all societies that some demographic groups experience digital as well as economic and social disadvantage. We can think of that digital disadvantage in two tiers. They are less likely to be connected and, if they are connected, they are less likely to use their connectivity effectively.
The old, for example, are less likely to be connected or use connectivity effectively than the young (on average). Those with lower educational qualifications, with lower incomes, with disabilities; those who speak minority languages, have chronic health problems or unstable jobs – all these groups, evidence shows, are less likely to gain from the digital environment.
These digital divides are also intersectional. Those who fall into more than one disadvantaged group are even less likely to be connected or use connectivity to their advantage than those around them. And this is especially the case with the most marginalised: the homeless, the elderly infirm, those suffering from depression or the onset of dementia, those in heavily discriminated racial or religious groups.
How do we think about this?
I’ve written previously about how internet/digital policymakers have often got this wrong by thinking that it’s a problem of digitalisation rather than a problem of inequality.
In the early days, they/we often thought that the internet would diminish inequality by empowering the poor. Now it’s generally recognised that it can exacerbate inequalities because those who already have advantages within society are more likely to make more and more effective use of it.
If we want the internet to empower the poor within society, we must do more than cross our fingers or believe that market mechanisms will suffice. We need active policy measures to bring about empowerment.
More recently, they/we have recognised the diversity of digital divides and the nature of who’s disadvantaged. This is progress. But they/we have thought too little about the realities of life for those experiencing disadvantage.
Few geeks have grown up in hardship. That’s one reason why they’ve emphasised what the internet can do for individuals rather than what it can do for disempowered communities (a point to which I will return next week).
Few digital policymakers have experienced life on the margins. Too often they see those who live there as problems to be fixed rather than people whose needs, concerns, priorities should be at the forefront of policy making.
And they/we have often seen digital inequality as something separate and distinct from other inequalities. In practice, however, if you can’t afford the internet, you almost certainly can’t afford healthcare; if you can’t afford a mobile phone, you may not be able to buy food for your children; if you’re afraid of harassment online, you’re afraid of it offline as well.
It’s not irrational for people to put immediate essentials before the uncertainties of investing in the online world; it’s a natural and appropriate response to risk and limited resources.
Digital inequality is a subset of inequality, not a special case. Reducing inequality isn’t something that can be achieved by digital technology, because it's not primarily a problem that is digital – but digital technology can play a part if it’s associated with policies and practices that foster both social and digital inclusion.
What has this to do with the corona crisis?
The added risk is that the current global health crisis may increase the likelihood that digital divides exacerbate social/economic inequalities.
The measures which have been taken to limit the spread of the corona virus in countries across the world so far are based on limiting contact and exposure.
Everyone, no matter how rich or careful, can fall victim to the virus – but some are much more able than others to reduce their level of exposure and of risk. It is, self-evidently, easier for those living in prosperous countries or districts to self-isolate than it is for those living in crowded or informal urban settlements.
Housing isn’t digital. But digital divides will also interact with inequalities of risk and opportunity as the year unfolds. I’ll give three examples.
Employment and income
The closure of workplaces and switch to homeworking that is following the virus round the world has very different impacts on different groups of workers.
Office workers in many cases can continue to do their jobs from home without much interruption. They are much more able to maintain their livelihoods than employees in sectors badly hit by business shutdowns – bars and restaurants, for example. Office workers are already, on average, better paid and have better social protections than other workers. Their ability to work from home online will have a lasting impact on income and employment beyond the present crisis, as those who can’t do so eat up their savings (those they have) and enter into debt.
Schools have been closed for the duration of the crisis in many countries. Education ministries and school administrations are hoping to replace classroom with distance learning, as best they can, for several months at least.
But distance learning’s only possible for those students in lockdown that have computers and the internet at home. Even in the wealthiest of countries a significant minority do not: the large majority do not in poorer states. Effective distance learning requires parental supervision, which is far easier for those working from home. It requires space that’s free of distraction (from younger siblings, for example), which is simply unavailable in many poorer households.
The most marginalised are, of course, the least connected and so most likely to miss out on education.Those with social and economic advantages are more likely to be able to home-school effectively.
Many people in affected countries are finding new ways to maintain family and social networks. My own immediate and extended families, for example, are establishing regular WhatsApp and Zoom video-get-togethers.
But what about those who aren't online, again likely to include those who're most marginalised? Those who are already isolated, who have no digital connectivity or have no experience of using it for networking? Those whose support networks are already fragmentary; those living in communities where social solidarity’s been fractured? They’re at risk of seeing their marginalisation grow.
A huge challenge
The corona crisis is a huge challenge for everyone, including digital policymakers and businesses.
Digital technologies are going to be crucial to enabling social and economic continuity in these difficult times. We should be grateful that we have them. This is an opportunity for the digital world to show its potential, and a test of that potential in reality. How will we use it?
The instinct of technologists and digital businesses is often to look for what they call “solutions”; to find ways of innovating that use tech to its utmost but take time to build and reach the market.
There’s obviously a place for that, but it’s not, I’d say, what matters most if the digital’s going to address the current crisis. Time’s too short. I’ll suggest four things.
Governments and businesses should closely monitor what people do on their own initiative to make technology deliver what they need, and then build on what they’re doing. They should listen and learn, in other words. Many of the most important impacts of digitalisation have not come from smart new apps but from what people do with those they have already.
Governments and businesses should focus on ways of making digital resources fill the gaps that are left as analogue activities close down – from maintaining food supply chains to maximising the number of jobs that can be sustained online, from enabling support for vulnerable households to sustaining entertainment for those in lockdown.
Businesses should identify how their massive data sets can support the public good as well as their commercial partners. Data corporations have often boasted of the good that big data and social media analytics can do for society. Now it’s showtime.
And governments and businesses should look to the time when the crisis is over and reconstruction’s underway. We should aim to emerge from this with a better understanding of the relationship between the digital and analogue, and of how to shape the digital society in the common rather than the individual interest.
Next week I’ll consider some implications of the crisis for internet governance.