Over the last year, I’ve researched and written the 2022 UK Digital Poverty Evidence Review for the Digital Poverty Alliance, which launched yesterday in the House of Lords.
The report synthesises a great deal of important work on digital exclusion and poverty, and it was impossible to cite everything or give each topic as much space as it probably deserved (you surely wouldn’t read a 2000-page report – who would?!). But I’m a fan of “showing your work,” so I’m making the list of references I consulted available for anyone who wants to dig even more deeply into the research behind the report (as a Zotero library).
The report spotlights three big-picture myths and three game-changing shifts that we need to address to tackle digital poverty in the pervasively digitised world of 2022. These are:
Big picture myths
The kids are alright
There are important demographic divides between those who are online with high levels of skills, and those who are offline with low levels of skills. On the whole, people over the age of 65 are more likely to be offline. This rather coarse statistic has given rise to the myth that young people are naturally “digital natives”: having grown up with technology, they will acquire the necessary digital capabilities simply through high exposure. The evidence increasingly refutes this assumption, with factors such as employment status, education, disability, income, and self-confidence cutting across age and impacting people’s level of exclusion. Often, unequal access to technology is a feature of schooling, with a growing inequity between affluent schools with more access to and choice about technology, and less well-resourced schools with more limited access and choices. As a result, technology provision in education is deepening existing differences in life chances.
Access is access
In the early days of digital divide research and policy, digital inequality was mainly thought of
as the gap between those who have internet access and those who do not. This was called
the “first-level digital divide,” and it has been thoroughly challenged by decades of further evidence showing that there are second- and third-level divides in skills, usage, and outcomes. Still today, digital inclusion is often treated like a switch that can be flipped on once and stays on for life. However, evidence shows that digital inclusion is a process rather than an event. Differences in quality, reliability, location, and experiences of access all influence whether an individual will be able to make the most of the digital world.
Digital exclusion will diminish or disappear over time without intervention
There is a common misconception that time will solve three of the biggest factors in digital exclusion in the UK – exposure, motivation, and confidence. The logic goes that the more people have to do online, the more people will spend time online, and the better acquainted with the digital world they will become. However, the digital divide has remained a problem for digitising societies since the beginning of the digital revolution – lower prices for hardware, more devices, and widespread connectivity have not solved digital exclusion. This is because digital inclusion is relative, the benchmarks are always changing as technology changes, and the solutions depend on social, political and technical responses to inequality. Ultimately, only concerted top-down and bottom-up efforts to address deep-rooted societal inequalities will help make progress on digital poverty. This dynamic approach demands thinking big and small at the same time, and putting the needs of people first.
Digital is not a separate domain, sector, or agenda
In our increasingly digitised world, the division between online and offline has become completely blurred. One of the tensions in dealing with digital poverty is keeping the spotlight on digital and its contribution to disadvantage, while also stressing that digital is pervasive and cannot be treated as a separate issue or programme. A focus on digital poverty, like the one taken in this report, could be misconstrued to suggest that “digital” constitutes its own domain, separate or on top of other domains of social life, such as education or work. The reality is that digital is embedded in all domains. In the words of Ofcom Chief Executive Dame Melanie Dawes, digital is not a separate sector.
The digitally excluded are still digital citizens
Everyone is part of a digital society — whether they are online or not. “Datafication” is the process by which information about people is turned into data that can be processed by computers,32 and this occurs behind the scenes, whether the datafied person is digitally literate or not. It is important to recognise how the digital world affects everyone – even people who are not actively online or have long periods of digital absence33 – especially as more of our everyday lives are digitised through the Internet of Things and Smart Cities, for example.
The digital world can be unfair by design
A growing body of literature has emerged on the issue of algorithmic bias34 and automated discrimination. Tackling the determinants of digital poverty will entail an awareness of the assumptions that go into the design and deployment of technology and how these can replicate and deepen certain inequalities and exclusions. Digital poverty is not just about access to connection and devices; it is also about ensuring the digitised, algorithmic systems do not perpetuate, deepen, or create new disadvantages for people.36 The automation of many processes and services and the invisibility of algorithmic “decisions” can create a false impression that these decisions are objective and neutral. When frontline staff in essential services rely on these outputs, it can deepen inequalities faced by already disadvantaged groups. In addition, the design of platforms and technologies can actively exclude, mislead, or disadvantage certain users. For example, websites that have not been designed to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) exclude assistive technology users and other disabled users.
The evidence also pointed to several key recommendations:
Digital poverty does not respect sector siloes, and neither should the recommendations
for tackling it. These recommendations have implications for all sectors – Government, local authorities, industry, the private sector, the third sector, and academia or the research sector. They have also gone on to inform five specific Policy Principles, developed in consultation with the Digital Poverty Alliance community to take the agenda forward. These recommendations and principles will contribute to the Digital Poverty Alliance’s forthcoming National Delivery Plan.
- Affordable and sustainable inclusion: Digital inclusion must be made more affordable and sustainable through both stop-gap digital inclusion initiatives, such as device distribution, and long-term community investment that recognises digital inclusion as dependent on broader (non-digital) community resilience and resources.
- Inclusive and accessible design: Technologies, platforms, and digital services must be designed to be safe, inclusive, accessible and privacy-protecting from the outset, through participatory design – involving affected communities in the design of technologies that affect their lives – and through effective and enforceable regulation.
- People-centred and community-embedded interventions: Digital inclusion policy, interventions, and research need to meet people where they already are by fostering and utilising existing community-based, formal, and informal spaces for inclusion, and focusing on helping people meet their own goals and objectives.
- Skills to engage and empower: The skills needed to tackle today’s pervasive and complex digital world are more than technical competencies, like typing and internet searching. Digital literacy must treat digital as part of civic life, encompassing critical thinking and awareness of data rights, privacy, and consent.
- Support for the whole journey: Digital inclusion needs to accommodate a shifting and increasingly complex digital landscape by supporting people throughout their entire lives and meeting them where they are in that journey – in school, on the job, through the health and care system, and more. Life circumstances and social context are important contributors to digital poverty, so this requires a focus on the offline, social dynamics of disadvantage.
- Building the evidence base: Although a lot of research on digital exclusion and poverty exists, there are some significant gaps. Research needs to consider digital poverty in relation to social, economic, political, and health inequality, and vice versa – these issues cannot remain siloed. Data on digital poverty needs to be both quantitative (statistical) and qualitative (interview, observation, and lived experience-based), and it needs to be representative, comparable, longitudinal, and freely available to the public and research community.
And these recommendations went on to inform the Digital Poverty Alliance’s Five Policy Principles:
Policy Principle 1: Digital is a basic right. Digital is now an essential utility – and access to it should be treated as such.
Policy Principle 2: Accessing key public services online, like social security and healthcare, must be simple, safe, and meet everyone’s needs.
Policy Principle 3: Digital should fit into people’s lives, not be an additional burden — particularly the most disadvantaged.
Policy Principle 4: Digital skills should be fundamental to education and training throughout life. Support must be provided to trusted intermediaries who have a key role in providing access to digital.
Policy Principle 5: There must be cross-sector efforts to provide free and open evidence on digital exclusion.