Inside the Information Society: ICTs, equality and empowerment - what's really happening?

Each week, David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week’s blog looks at ICTs, equality and empowerment, and at how ICTs can empower and disempower the same people at the same time.

ICTs, equality and empowerment

For twenty years there’s been a common theme in writing about ICTs and development. ICTs, it’s been assumed, empower people. Why? Because they enable people to access information and opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be open to them. And empowerment, it has been assumed, will lead to more equality.

But has it happened? Digital divides, it’s commonly agreed, are not diminishing. In fact, the UN’s review of WSIS outcomes last year suggested that Least Developed Countries are falling further back.

There’s growing evidence that marginalised communities are also losing out. The latest World Development Report puts it like this: ‘The risk is that rapid technological change will end up increasing inequality and leaving many behind — blunting the digital dividends.’

Rethinking our assumptions

Time, then, to take another look at casual assumptions that ICTs will lead to more empowerment and more equality. Here’s my argument as to why they need to be rethought.

First, do ICTs empower? In practice, yes. Access to information and resources which were not previously available is empowering. Those who are poor and marginalised, as ICT4D literature has emphasised, can gain access to knowledge and capital, and can extend social and economic networks, in ways that help them take opportunities they couldn’t take before. It can therefore empower them, if they take those opportunities, by comparison with their own previous experience.

But, then, whom else do ICTs empower? If ICTs empower, then they empower everyone, and for the same reasons: they give access to more resources, more information, wider networks, new ways of doing things. They empower the rich as well as the poor; the large as well as smaller enterprises; landlords as well as tenants; employers as well as employees; the powerful as well as the powerless.

And the extent to which they empower people depends not on ICTs themselves but on those people’s ability to access and to use them. Those with more money can buy more and better ICTs than those with less. Those with more education and more skills can make more use of them. Those with more power are likely to have more access to them and to make more use of them than those with less.

Empowerment is relative

Empowerment isn’t just about comparing what you can do now with what you could do previously. It is about the balance of power in relationships. If ICTs empower everyone, they can therefore magnify the differences in power between those who can afford more ICTs and make more effective use of them, and those who can’t – between rich and poor, large and smaller enterprises, landlord and tenant, employer and employee.

It’s perfectly possible, as a result, for ICTs to empower and disempower simultaneously – to empower the poor by comparison with their past experience, while disempowering them in relation to those that have power over them. Indeed, there’s growing evidence that that’s what’s happening in many cases.

Digital divides and ‘impact-of-digital’ divides

This should make us think again about ‘digital divides’. We’ve learnt we shouldn’t think of these just in terms of connectivity; that ‘real access’ depends also on affordability, content and capabilities. But we should go one step further too, and think of what I’ll call ‘impact-of-digital’ divides. These aren’t about access and use of ICTs themselves, but about what happens down the line. What impact are ICTs having on equality and power structures?

Think, for example, of how they might impact on competition between large and smaller businesses vying for customers in your small town. Both will gain from greater access to information and resources as a result of ICTs. But which has more capacity to buy the latest kit, or try the latest app, or use it to build market share at the expense of rivals? The larger business with access to capital and skilled employees? Or the smaller business which gets by on lower profit margins and can’t afford to hire in expertise?

This problem of relative empowerment is compounded by the pace of change in ICTs. New, more powerful ICTs, which offer more advantages, become available every day. They cost money. So does the connectivity that they require. Businesses with more capital and individuals with more wealth or income are better able to buy them. Those with more education and more skills are better placed to use them. Digital, and ‘impact-of-digital’, divides are not static; they evolve.

Rethinking ICTs, equality and empowerment

So: ICTs empower the poor in relation to their past. But they can also disempower them within the power structures they inhabit. ICT4D has (rightly) built a lot of hope around their potential for empowerment, but it has (wrongly) paid too little attention to their potential for disempowerment. What to do?

We should recognise that ICTs are bought and used within established power structures. When powerful people take them up, that can increase their advantage over those who have less power. If we want ICTs to benefit the poor, then we need to understand how they also benefit the rich, and seek to mitigate the consequences.

We should pay as much attention to ‘impact-of-digital’ divides (how the use of ICTs affects equality within society as a whole) as we do to digital divides (inequalities in connectivity and access).

Refocusing digital divides on affordability, content and capabilities goes only part of the way in doing this. It (rightly) aims to boost the opportunity that poorer, marginalised individuals and communities have to gain from ICTs. But that mostly helps empower them in relation to their past. It doesn’t address the broader interaction between ICTs and structural inequalities within society. Some attention is belatedly being paid to this interaction in relation to the gender digital divide (which I’ll return to in a later post). It should be broadened to other structural divides as well.

This matters because, if strategies for ICT4D focus only on the potential of ICTs, they will miss the mark. If we want them to address poverty and marginalisation, they must recognise that ICTs don’t just empower people in relation to their past, they also affect relationships within established power structures. They shouldn’t just accentuate the positive; they should also mitigate the negative.

Next week: the first of three posts on ICTs and rights. What have ICTs done for rights within the international rights regime? And what have they done to them?

Image: Flickr Commons


David Souter is a longstanding associate of APC, and has worked for more than twenty years on the relationship between ICTs and public policy, particularly development, environment, governance (including Internet governance) and rights. David writes a weekly blog for APC, looking at different aspects of the Information Society, development and rights. David’s blog takes a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. It comments on current topics and international meetings, draw attention to new reports and publications, critique their assumptions and suggest alternative perspectives. The views are his own, not APC’s. We hope that they will stimulate discussion, and that others will contribute their ideas in complementary blogs in future. More about David Souter. Follow him on Twitter .
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