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It’s a central message of the UN’s Sustainable Development Agenda. “As we embark on this collective journey,” says its preamble, “we pledge that no one will be left behind.” And, it adds, “we will endeavour to reach the furthest behind first.”

It’s a pledge that’s meant to reach all parts of the Agenda, from health and education to sufficient food and clean water to gender equality and human rights.

Where information technology’s concerned, that guiding principle’s translated into access. The international community, according to Goal 9 of the Agenda, will “strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020.”

What does it mean to those who work on implementing SDGs? And who is really being left behind? Some points in general, some points on digital, and then some points on digital and analogue.

What does it mean?

Three points to make where the general principle’s concerned.

First, there’s an underlying assumption that we’re living in progressive times: that things are getting better, that they’ll continue to do so, and that improvement should be shared by all. Growing prosperity has been the trend in human development over the last few centuries, but it’s not a given – as the banking crisis in 2008 and the COVID years more recently have demonstrated.

Second, it implies inclusion rather than equality. The aim’s to make sure that benefits of growth accrue to all, and that the poorest, the most marginal, don’t find themselves worse off vis-à-vis the rest than they were beforehand. If something new becomes available – the internet, for instance – then it should be available to all.  Equality of usage and of impact is an altogether bigger step.

And third, targets can be more aspirational than real. It’s desirable that increased inclusion is achieved as fast as possible, but that requires investment, education, the development of skills, policies to address real, complex and sometimes conflicting challenges.

The investment required to provide ‘universal’ access to the Internet in LDCs between the date the SDGs were finalised, in 2015, and the target date of 2020, was colossal. That’s one target that was widely missed. There are still parts of the world without access at all, and very many people for whom it’s unaffordable.

“To reach the furthest behind first,” as the SDG Agenda puts it, is particularly difficult. Those who are most marginalised are most difficult to reach, because marginalisation’s multifaceted and affected, often, by factors not susceptible to interventions. The aspiration’s good, the practice harder.

Digital inequality and marginalisation

I’ve written previously about the relationship between inequality and digital in/exclusion. The latter’s not just about access and connectivity, or even those plus affordability and resources such as skills and content (though adding those to what’s come to be  called “meaningful” access has been important).

Inequality and exclusion arise from complex social structures – of economic and political power, race and gender, class and caste, age and education, locality and sexuality, income and wealth. Communities and individuals are more or less “included” in society, have greater opportunities or less, thanks to these and other characteristics, the way they’ve played out in their society’s development, and people’s personal trajectories.

Digital inequality plays into this. The ability to access and, as importantly, exploit digital resources is greater, sometimes much greater, for communities and individuals that start out with more resources, higher social status, financial or hereditary power than it is for those who don’t.

Digitalisation can help disadvantaged communities and individuals to redress some disadvantages, but it can also compound them. Digital access alone can’t remedy such inequalities because they’re rooted in the capacity of individuals and communities to exploit digitalisation – and the need for them to do so more effectively than those who’re more advantaged.

If digitalisation is to help redress inequality and marginalisation, it requires policy approaches that understand the causes of inequality in general, not just digital inequality, reflect the lived experience of those who feel excluded, and address those underlying inequalities as well as “digital” divides.

Digital inclusion

Digital policymakers have generally been poor at integrating thus. They’ve assumed, by and large, that the benefits of digitalisation are substantial and (ought to be) self-evident to users and potential users. Hence the emphasis on access (“build it and they will come”) and, more recently, addressing barriers to access (affordability, skills, content, feared insecurity, social constraints such as restrictions on the lives of women and minorities).

These factors are obviously central to enabling digital inclusion, but they’re not sufficient to address broader inequality and marginalisation. To approach that goal, digital policy needs to lie within policy approaches concerned with (in)equality and inclusion across society.

Market forces on their own won’t reduce inequality. And not all governments are interested in doing so, in any case.

Digitalisation by default

Focusing on marginalisation in general rather than digital marginalisation alone is especially important in a period of transition, of the kind that we’re now in.

We’re moving, it’s said, from an analogue age to one that’s digital, though the pace of that transition’s different in different countries, for different communities and different individuals. Digitalisation is accelerating more rapidly in some countries than others, in some developing countries than others, for more educated, professional and younger population groups than others.

In some countries, including mine (the UK), we’ve now reached a time in which digital resources and services are displacing, rather than complementing, their analogue equivalents – something that COVID lockdowns have accelerated.

You can see this, for instance, in financial services. Ten years ago, four banks had branches in the high street of my local town: the last of these will shortly close, because online banking has become the norm. Many of their customers regret this or resent it, but the banks are adamant these local branches are not necessary.

Some shops and restaurants in Britain (and elsewhere) are no longer taking cash. Bills for public utilities like electricity and water are becoming digital by default, on the assumption that customers will or should have computers and (if they need a printed copy) printers. Tickets for some concerts must now be shown on smartphones. Payment for the car parks near my home will soon be only digital: without a smartphone, it won’t be possible to park without risking a hefty fine. And so on.

This transition from analogue to digital is sold to users on the basis of convenience – and for many that will work. But it’s also cheaper for service providers – as well as offering extra layers of data that will help them target customers with ads for other services. (In the early days of online services, I had to pay a premium for online banking; now I’m sometimes asked to pay a premium for anything by post.)

Digital inclusion requires analogue inclusion

But digitalisation by default excludes people rather than including them. Societies may be in transition to futures that are going to be more digital, but individuals within societies engage with that transition differently.

Not everyone wants to be online, or can afford to be. Not everyone is digitally savvy or finds it comfortable to exchange the habits of a lifetime and the comforting familiarity of human interaction for digital alternatives. Not everyone trusts online services – and often for good reason, because they don’t want to be pursued by advertising that they didn’t ask for and they worry about scams that could cost them money that they can’t afford to lose.

These factors – barriers, if you will; or choices, should you so prefer – are particularly crucial for those whose lives are already more marginal, particularly those who’re older or did not become familiar with computers in their schools or workplaces; those whose language or computer skills are limited; those whose needs are complex and require more than an online interface can offer; those who need help with digital and other services rather than being able to work things out themselves.

Making life easier for the digitally savvy can make it harder for those who are digitally inexperienced. It can, in short, leave them behind.

Policy approaches

Digital transition, therefore, requires as much attention to analogue inclusion as to digital. Digital and analogue ways of doing things need to be complementary if they’re to be inclusive. Services should be designed to meet the needs of users, and pay particular attention to those who may have difficulty using them.

Public services, in particular – such as those concerned with social security or employment – should be accessible to those who aren’t online, or can’t afford a smartphone, in the same way that they should be accessible to those whose first language isn’t that of the majority, or those with disabilities affecting sight or hearing or mobility.

More attention should be paid to listening to users on the margins when designing policies and services, even if that costs cost savings.  A great deal of effort is put by digital policymakers into listening to the digitally-savvy young at present (“because they are the future”); far less to listening to the old (although they are the present and have greater need of help in navigating digital transition).

And impacts here need to be monitored rather than assumed. Digitalisation can and will increase access to services for the majority, but, if it’s to be inclusive, it’s essential that it’s designed in ways that maintain access to those services for the minorities that are often most in need of them. Making them more digital can make them less accessible; less digital can make them more accessible. When and how are things we need to know.


Image: Student helping elders on computer by Hartness Library Vermont Technical College via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

David Souter writes a fortnightly 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.