Inside the Information Society: ICTs, the Internet and structural inequality

What’s the impact of ICTs on equality and inequality? What’s the relationship between digital divides and other inequalities between women and men, old and young, poor and rich? Are new technologies reducing or increasing inequalities?

Changing views of ICTs and (in)equality

Back in the early days of ICT4D, many thought that ICTs would naturally help here. They give access to knowledge, said those many, which will empower the poor – and that, they thought, would reduce inequality.

That view held sway in ICT4D for quite some time and it is still heard now – but, increasingly, the evidence is pointing differently. The World Bank’s 2016 World Development Report marked a turning point, when it linked new technology with rising inequality. I hear that latter view expressed more often now in academic meetings than the former.

Why should technology be linked with inequality?

Because new technologies are introduced into societies which are already far from equal – in many interlocking ways.

Wealth in most societies is concentrated by inheritance and occupation. The rich can afford more access to more new technologies than can the poor, just as they can afford more access to everything else that requires cash.

Education too is often concentrated, and also often in high-income groups. Those with more education can make more use of ICTs than those with less because they have more skills.

Income and education are often concentrated by gender and in certain social groups. Men’s average incomes exceed women’s in most societies. In many countries boys spend more time in school than girls, and are likelier to go to university. Inequalities derived from ethnicity, sexuality and disability are commonplace.

I’ve written elsewhere about the impact of these inequalities as new technologies become available – about how ICTs can empower the poor/marginalised/excluded by offering access to information and other resources – which is positive – but simultaneously disempower them because they can make less effective use of those technologies than those who wield power over them.

Power structures and structural inequality

These inequalities are structural. Power structures matter. Digital divides are no different here from other structural inequalities within society.

Some groups within society have better access to health and education than do others; are more likely to own their own homes, cars, televisions, fridges, radios; to have better clothes; to participate in politics and business; to live longer and live better.  This is true in all societies (though degrees of difference vary).

Inequalities of opportunity and outcome are rooted in political, economic and social structures that have lasted generations. It was always naïve to think that ICTs would grub them up. The question from the start should have been about how ICTs would interact with them. For those who’d like to advance equality, the question should always have been more complex – indeed threefold, as I’ll come to in conclusion.

What about digital divides?

All this has serious implications for how we deal with digital divides. It’s these that I’ll address below.

We’ve been preoccupied with digital divides for decades – at international level since the Maitland Report in 1984, across the board at least since the late ‘90s, especially since WSIS (2003).

They’re challenging for many reasons, but particularly two:

  • They’re subject to rapid change. By the time equality’s approached in one technology (say, 2G mobile), there’s greater inequality in its successor (3G, 4G, 5G). Digital divides are in constant motion, which makes them nigh impossible to bridge.

  • And the key factors underpinning them are structural. Those who can afford more ICTs – countries, regions (typically cities), communities, individuals – are always likely to have more access to more ICTs. Those with more skills will always be able to use them more effectively (not least in order to acquire more skills).

We can’t therefore address digital divides only through digital policies, and we shouldn’t think we can. If we want to reduce digital divides, we can only do so by attacking the structural inequalities that underpin them too.

ICTs, in short, aren’t the “solution” to structural inequalities that some have hoped; they’re as affected by those inequalities as other goods and services. What’s more, because they are empowering technologies, if we’re not careful ICTs could exacerbate inequalities in other areas of society – increasing gaps in access to information and resources, health and education, rather than reducing them. This fear of what might be called the “digital impact divide” was inherent, alongside hope, in the World Bank’s influential 2016 report.

The example of the gender digital divide

We can see the importance of structural inequalities on ICTs in many places, but most attention’s been paid lately to the gender digital divide.

Getting data here is difficult. Official stats have limitations. Companies have more information than do policymakers but by and large insist that it’s commercial property. Household surveys, such as the After Access ones of Research ICT Africa (RIA), DIRSI and LIRNEasia, give valuable insights but more are needed.

Nevertheless, all evidence suggests there’s a significant gender gap in access to and use of ICTs (mobile phones, Internet and online services). ITU estimates that men are about 12% more likely than women to use the Internet worldwide than women (the difference ranging from around 3% in developed countries, where Internet’s affordable for almost everyone, to 33% in least developed countries, where many can’t afford it.

It’s clear that structural inequalities between women and men are crucial here. RIA, LIRNE and others find that the gender digital divide in most countries parallels divides between women and men in income and educational attainment. Men, on average, can afford more ICTs. Fewer girls, especially in LDCs, complete their schooling.

Research also shows how barriers arise from the interface between these structural and cultural inequalities. LIRNEasia research in Myanmar for the GSM Association, for example, shows the impact of traditional gender roles (men leaving home to work while women stay at home), limited understanding of the Internet and its potential, and women’s anxieties concerning exposure to harm. Men in Myanmar, LIRNE found, are more likely, too, to own smartphones; women to rely on basic models.

In summary:

Structural inequalities in society determine, to a significant extent, how ICTs are accessed, owned and used. They are the principal cause of digital divides. Where ICTs are advantageous to their users, this could perpetuate or exacerbate inequalities of gender, class, ethnicity, etc.

If that is true, then it requires policy interventions. We can’t afford just to sit back and hope that increased access in itself will empower and enequal citizens.

To start with, we need to understand digital divides much more thoroughly than we do today. Far more research is needed, to more rigorous standards. We need data that we can disaggregate more easily; with more attention paid to intersectionality, especially the cumulative impact of (e.g.) gender, poverty and lack of education. Private sector businesses could do more to make data available.

A threefold prescription

Digital policy needs to be located within development policy, as well, rather than the other way about. Where should it focus?

First, we can seek to improve access and use of ICTs by addressing the challenges to access and use that arise from structural inequality. Cheaper smartphones that require less regular replacement, rather than ever more expensive models aimed at richer markets. Regulation for more affordable packages of connectivity. Handsets and services that don’t require the literacy or language capabilities that many lack.

Second, we can seek to mitigate the impact of advantages arising from access and use of ICTs to those who can afford to make more use and have the skills to make more beneficial use. Ensuring that access to digitally-enabled services does not require high-end equipment or high levels of information literacy. Facilitating access to online financial services and government resources in ways that make them equally accessible to all. High standards of cybersecurity to protect more vulnerable users.

Third, we can seek ways in which ICTs themselves could undermine the structural inequalities that pervade societies. Providing information services and resources that enable women to break through cultural barriers restricting their economic autonomy and social/political participation. Regulatory obligations to provide services in rural as well as urban areas, slums as well as business districts. Statutory requirements for accessibility of handsets and services for those with disabilities. More dynamic policy interaction between digital policies and those concerned with equality and empowerment across the board.

A lot’s been written, and a lot of hope invested, in what ICTs could do to facilitate equality. Not enough’s been done to consider (and mitigate) how ICTs might foster inequality. Fewer evidence-free assumptions, more data and more serious policy attention are needed. The relationship between ICTs and structural equality's a key.

Image by Iain Tait used under Creative Commons license.


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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