UK Digital Poverty Evidence Review 2022

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.

Game-changing shifts

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.

Five Essays over Five Days at a Digital Poverty Summit

I’m currently writing an evidence review on digital poverty for the Digital Poverty Alliance, a new charitable organisation focused on connecting and focussing the digital poverty agenda in the UK. During this time, the Digital Poverty Alliance also asked me to attend, observe, and write a summary for each day of a digital poverty summit it had supported alongside several All-Party Parliamentary Groups related to digital issues. I’m reposting those essays here. They’re all available on the Digital Poverty Alliance blog.

Day 1: Digital Capability and Understanding – Digital Skills in the Workplace and the Future of Work

The future of work is digital, and the UK has some catching up to do if it aspires to a digitally capable workforce fit to meet that future. 

This was the predominant message from the first installment of the Digital Poverty and Inequalities Summit, hosted yesterday by the APPG for Digital Skills. Invited contributors included representatives from TechUK, FutureDotNow, Google, Harvey Nash Group, BT, City & Guilds, Community Trade Union, and Prospect. 

Despite encouraging figures indicating that there are 5.6 million more people with foundational digital skills as a result of upskilling during the pandemic, Lloyds Bank reports that 11.8 million (36%) of the workforce still lack Essential Digital Skills for Work. Thinking ahead, the digital workplace is changing more rapidly than ever before, rendering digital skills a constantly moving target. By some estimates (published by the Confederation of British Industry and McKinsey), 90 percent of the UK workforce will need to reskill by 2030. 

Several recommendations surfaced at the roundtable to address where there are important gaps:

  • Evidence

We need to understand more fully what working life looks like for adults in the UK today, as well as understanding the link between digital skills and all aspects of life (e.g. health, recidivism, and of course productivity), both on a personal and societal level. Questions were raised around the role of Government’s existing significant investment in the What Works Network to generate evidence-based insights about digital across sectors to enable more holistic policy social impact.

  • Education

The pathways between education and work are not adequately preparing young people for a digital workplace. Formal education needs a stronger emphasis on digital skills across the whole curriculum, not just IT, informed by the needs of the employment market; and skills training needs to be available for the many people who do not pursue university education, including on-the-job training for both younger and older employees.

  • Lifelong inclusion

People constantly need new skills to be able to engage with a changing digital world. One of the places where people have the highest exposure to digital skills is in the workplace, on the job. When people fall out of employment or retire, their skills can deteriorate, so there needs to be provision for free, lifelong learning at different life stages and circumstances.

  • Prioritisation from the top

Digital skills delivery and digital skills policy is often fragmented across different sectors and at different levels (from the community to the national level). Digital capability needs to be a clear strategic national priority, communicated across government from the highest levels. As recommended by the House of Lords Covid-19 Select Committee, this should be led by the Cabinet Office and supported by respective departments, such as the Department for Education and HM Treasury to realise the benefits to UK PLC as well as for social and economic inclusion.

  • Signposting

Several speakers stated that the problem in delivering digital skills is not supply but demand. A range of digital skills training programmes exist — Learn My Way, the Lloyds AcademyGoogle GarageiDEA, and the new skills boot camps were all mentioned — and one-to-one help exists in Online Centres across the country. But people often do not know where to go for help. There needs to be more cross-sector signposting of available skills resources and training for people at the first point of contact, when they need it, and follow through to make sure they can access them. The Government has a key role to play here, as it manages many of the most important channels to the most vulnerable people, across health, education and housing, for example. (Learn more about how the Digital Poverty Alliance Community Board aims to support this.) 

  • Motivation and skills go hand-in-hand

Both capability and motivation are determinants of digital poverty, and they are very closely linked. As Liz Williams from FutureDotNow put it, “If the pandemic hasn’t motivated people, what’s it going to take?” Several speakers highlighted how a lack of exposure, confusion regarding the language we use to talk about digital skills and the digital world, and/or a lack of confidence can be de-motivating for people in acquiring digital skills. We need to tackle motivation alongside skills from education to employment and beyond.

Although it is impossible to cover the full range of issues relevant to digital skills in the workplace in just one roundtable discussion, there were some important themes missing from the conversation.

  • Locating responsibility for digital skills

Discussions of digital skills in the workplace tend to take the expectations of employers and industry as the default perspective. The question therefore often starts from the same premise. What do employers need? What does the economy need? 

Of course, this is an important perspective because people do need skills that are required in the job market. However, some roundtable participants acknowledged the risk of this default point-of-view: it ignores users’ (people’s) experiences. And in doing so, it individualises the ‘problem’ of digital skills — situating the responsibility for digital skills on the individual rather than placing an equal burden on the system. What is the responsibility of the job market, or even the designers and developers of technologies and digital systems themselves? When digital platforms and technologies are not built to be user-friendly for marginalised users (such as disabled people, people who speak English as a second language, people who have left education, or lack textual literacy), the experience of being online can be disheartening and de-motivating, if not discriminatory.

In research that colleagues and I conducted in public libraries, we found that people face many simple digital barriers in accessing jobs that otherwise require minimal digital skills. For example, the proliferation of online-only job applications for low-paid, hourly work blocks many digitally excluded people from even applying,  and it may also be de-motivating for people to consider acquiring any further digital skills. 

Therefore, additional important questions should include: whose responsibility are digital skills and literacy, and how can the job market be made less alienating for people experiencing digital exclusion? This is a shared responsibility across Government, business, and the tech sector.

  • Critical and abstract thinking skills

In our increasingly complex digital world, many of the digital skills needed to thrive not only in the workplace but in everyday life are not technical skills; they are critical thinking and abstract problem solving skills. And they diverge in important ways from the problem solving skills outlined in the Essential Digital Skills framework. 

Ofcom has identified some of these issues, reporting that people are increasingly unlikely to validate online information sources, have limited understanding of the ways companies collect and use personal data, and fail to accurately identify paid-for online advertising. The Me and My Big Data project found that many people in the UK lack data literacy and feel disempowered in the way their data is extracted and used. And in my own research, I have found that digitally excluded users often struggle most with constructing an abstract set of steps in their mind to get to a digital end-goal. Although they may have basic competencies, like logging into Wifi, this abstract thinking is a key digital barrier.

Therefore, other important questions should be: how can we cultivate both technical and critical thinking skills among even the most basic digital technology users? Can/should the digital world be designed to require less abstract thinking in the interest of becoming more inclusive?

  • Public participation

Both of these themes point to the need for greater public participation in the design of the digital workplace, digital technologies and systems, and digital skills learning programmes. There is a notable lack of lived experience perspectives — the views of ordinary people experiencing compound forms of inequality — in high level conversations about digital skills.Tackling the motivation side of the capability equation will involve not only identifying what skills people need, but crucially what skills they want. We need diverse voices in the room from, for instance, the disabled community, in order to meet people’s needs first.

The recommendations from the roundtables will inform a forthcoming Digital Poverty Evidence Review i2022 for the Digital Poverty Alliance, in which I will explore these further themes in greater depth, drawing on evidence from academia, industry, Government and the third sector. Read the interim report here.

If you have a single suggestion about what Government could do that would make a difference in the area of digital capability, e-mail: digitalskillsappg@connectpa.co.uk.

This roundtable was hosted by the APPG for Digital Skills, in collaboration with the APPG Data Poverty, APPG PICTFOR and supported by the Digital Poverty Alliance.


Day 2: Data Poverty

If there is one digital exclusion issue that has been unprecedentedly spotlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is data poverty. And now that the light has been shed, there will be no looking away.

Data poverty was the topic of the second day of the Digital Poverty and Inequalities Summit hosted by a cross-party coalition of All-Party Parliamentary Groups and MPs and supported by the Digital Poverty Alliance. The relatively new APPG on Data Poverty, which hosted yesterday’s roundtable, is a direct response to the urgent realisation, as one speaker put it, that “the digital divide comes with exclusion from society more generally.” 

Last year’s national lockdowns saw schools, workplaces, and public spaces close to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in a sharp disruption to everyday rhythms that suddenly revealed how many people were without the basic connectivity needed to continue life, let alone level up — online. According to Citizen’s Advice, 2.5 million people have fallen behind on broadband bills during the pandemic. Ofcom reports that approximately 9 percent of households with children lacked access to a laptop, desktop, or tablet. Around 17 percent did not have consistent access to a suitable device for their online home-learning, which increased to 27 percent of children from households classed as most financially vulnerable. The recent Nominet Digital Youth Index finds that a third of young people do not have broadband at home. Even among those with home broadband, 13 percent say their connection is not good enough for everyday tasks and 52 percent say there are things they can’t do online due to poor connectivity. A deluge of media coverage and personal stories powerfully illustrated how many British families have faced impossible choices between necessities during the pandemic: “pay the wifi or feed the children”. As the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty articulated (in 2019), in a pervasively digital world, the digital divide is a question of basic human rights.

But the roundtable speakers, who represented organisations including The Good Things Foundation, Jisc, BT, Glide, Vodafone, and Nominet, all said that this was a problem well known to them before the pandemic. The cost and accessibility of connectivity and devices is a determinant of digital poverty. According to Lloyds Bank, nearly a third of those offline said that cheaper costs would encourage them to use the internet. Ofcom finds that 10 percent of internet users go online with a smartphone only, rising to 18 percent among those in socio-economic group DE. These issues are closely linked; when people do not have or cannot afford a home broadband connection, and they rely on mobile internet instead, they are paying for more expensive data

The entangled nature of data poverty (how much is about access? affordability? devices?) makes it difficult to define. And the definition often hinges on what a minimally acceptable standard would look like. The Good Things Foundation says that means data that is cheap, handy (easy to access), enough (in terms of speed and quantity), safe (to ensure privacy and protect users from harms), suitable (appropriate for an individual’s life circumstances). Nesta identifies data poverty as an inability to engage fully in the online world due to barriers including low income, not being able to get a data contract, lack of privacy, and local infrastructure. 

But the roundtable discussion demonstrated that precise definitions are less important than understanding the vectors of the problem. Data poverty — like poverty more broadly — is a product and producer of both resource and social exclusion. It is contextual, embedded in individual circumstances. And it is relative, meaning that the benchmark of exclusion changes as the nature of digital technology changes. 

Uniting around the urgency of the issue is the imperative, as captured in the key takeaways from the session:

  • Government must take a leadership role

Eradicating digital poverty cannot be achieved in isolation, and it cannot be accomplished in siloes. Government needs to lead national efforts to tackle data poverty. Despite the rapid rollout of many innovative schemes to fill an emergency gap during the pandemic (see the next point), many speakers said that people often do not know about the schemes that are available. In part, this is due to the piecemeal and fragmented array of partnerships and programmes, which are necessarily led by industry and the third sector. When there is market failure, as there is in this case, the Government must step in. The other part is the user journey, with attendees noting that where there are low cost offers, these are often too complex or hard to find for the people they aim to support. This is reflected in low take-up numbers. 

One speaker remarked, “Sometimes it feels like the Government is just standing back and saying, ‘oh, thank you very much.’” Data poverty impacts society and citizenship, yet it is non-governmental sectors that are having to step in and bridge the gaps — out of sheer public need. Government can do more, and there are many people and organisations who want to help.

Some recommendations included zero-rating essential services and implementing a universal service levy on companies that reap the greatest reward for digital engagement, many of which have saved billions in cost due to digital transformation, which has not in turn been returned to their customers. The Government has saved, too, and these windfalls should be re-invested in digital equity and inclusion. Another recommendation is to impose a social tariff on all operators — an initiative BT has already undertaken. As community members of the Digital Poverty Alliance pointed out, at the very least the Government and big business can signpost to available affordability schemes, subsidise social broadband tariffs, impose regulation requiring minimum standards of connectivity, offer help with paying bills, and help to identify the people most in need through their existing channels.   

  • We need long-term solutions that are sustainable beyond the pandemic

Industry and the third sector stepped up to meet public need during the pandemic with stop-gap measures that helped hundreds of thousands of people. To name just a few: BT, Openreach, Virgin Media, Sky, TalkTalk, O2, Vodafone, Three, Hyperoptic, Gigaclear, and KCOM took measures to lift data allowance caps on their broadband services; DevicesDotNow and others distributed donated and refurbished devices to families in need; and the Department for Education partnered with telecom companies to provide free data to disadvantaged families through schools.

But there is a clear need to develop long-term solutions to data poverty that are sustainable beyond the crisis moment. For example, what happens to the group of children next year who enter school without home access, or to the family whose limited-time free offer of connectivity runs out so they must again choose between food and connectivity? According to the Association of Colleges, 36 percent of colleges in England do not have sufficient access available, even in school. If industry and the third sector are meant to continue support for disadvantaged families and individuals, there must be a long-term plan in place to fund these initiatives and to address the multiple factors that contribute to digital poverty, including access to adequate devices and consumer choice (the ability to choose among fairly priced competitive internet service providers).

  • Data poverty is poverty

A clear theme that emerged in the roundtable was the intersection between data poverty and socio-economic deprivation. Although data poverty is a relatively new concept, it is not distinctfrom poverty writ large. Rather, the digital divide is a determinant of poverty, just like the inability to afford heating or inadequate nutrition. People who lack digital skills also often pay more for utilities and earn less per year. In short, data poverty contributes to the poverty premium. And in the midst of our most profound modern health crisis, research increasingly shows that digital exclusion is a determinant of health outcomes.

For these reasons, it is important to consider data poverty in the same terms in which we consider other forms of deprivation. And we should ask: what is the minimum standard needed to survive in our digital world? Projects like the newly minted Minimum Digital Living Standardresearch network will aim to address this issue, recognising that poverty is often defined by context as much as by simple thresholds like the speed of a connection or the availability of a single device. When families need to share devices, for instance, a limited resource winds up spread thinly across individuals’ needs.

  • There is a need to more accurately identify need

Data poverty is two-fold: it is about getting people access to the data (internet service) they need, but on the delivery side, it is also about gathering better data to locate the need. 

While there is a clear willingness to deliver more affordable access and devices to people who need them, there is a distinct gap in evidence about who those people are and what mechanisms lead to digital poverty. Here, again, is a clear role for the Government, which has the ability to signpost to those with a registered disability, jobseekers, those on free school meals, those in poor health, carers, those on low income, and those in receipt of Universal Credit, for example. These have been key vulnerable groups identified during the pandemic; we need to ensure that the pipeline of information from government to service delivery stays open and that existing channels to these people are shared between government departments so that people’s entire needs are met.

  • Where people have access is as important as other factors

It is easy to overlook the important qualitative differences in access to data that contribute to “data poverty.” For example, public internet access points have long been part of strategies for digital inclusion. The Government’s 2017 Digital Strategy called libraries the “go-to providers” of digital inclusion, and public libraries are, in fact, vitally important access points for people living in data poverty. (My own research with colleagues at the University of Oxford showed that 29% of library computer users in Oxfordshire had neither computers nor internet access at home.)

But public access is not qualitatively the same as access at home, and public wifi cannot be considered an adequate solution for people to be digitally included. Not only do people who rely on public wifi have fewer opportunities to acquire and practise digital skills, but they can also be subjected to more surveillance and tracking on public networks. Certain tasks, like attending court hearings and online banking are more difficult and risky in public internet spaces — and it is often marginalised people who are forced to conduct their private (online) lives in public. Therefore, priority must be placed on at-home or mobile internet suitable to individuals’ needs.

I think at least one further point deserves attention in a discussion of digital poverty. This is the related, downstream impact of data poverty on further digital exclusion. In particular, this is the problem of people living in data poverty becoming “missing data.” One attendee mentioned in the Zoom chat that many people are unable to prove their identity to digital ID systems. (This was a criticism leveled by the National Audit Office on the Verify system for Universal Credit.) The issue of datafied invisibility is a nuanced aspect of data poverty: people become increasingly invisible to digital systems when they do not leave data trails, and they cannot leave data trails when they cannot access or afford the internet.

Avoiding these feedback loops in which the poor have inadequate access to the internet and are further penalised for their inadequate access — by high utility bills, targeted scams, and failed credit checks, etc. — should be of paramount concern to society, the business sector, and certainly to Government.

These and other issues related to digital poverty along with policy recommendations that have emerged from the #DPIS21 meetings will inform a forthcoming Digital Poverty Evidence Review 2022 for the Digital Poverty Alliance. Read the interim report here.

This roundtable was hosted by the APPG for Data Poverty, in collaboration with the APPG Digital Skills, APPG PICTFOR and supported by the Digital Poverty Alliance.


Day 3: Research and Development – How Can the Tech Sector Drive Innovation in the UK Economy and Help Close the Digital Divide?

Both the title and discussion of yesterday’s installment of the Digital Poverty and Inequalities Summit left open the question of the relationship between tech innovation and the digital divide: is the question whether it is possible for the tech sector to both drive innovation and close the digital divide (i.e. are these ambitions at odds with one another)? Or, is it whether tech sector-driven innovations in the UK economy could possibly close the digital divide (i.e. is innovation the answer to inequality)? 

Depending on how one interprets the question, there are two potential debates and two sets of policy recommendations that might emerge from the provocation. The November 17th roundtable was hosted by the APPG PICTFOR and supported by a cross-party group of MPs and the Digital Poverty Alliance. Speakers included MPs from both parties and a representative from Telecoms Supply Chain Diversification Advisory Council, and there were also many contributions from attendees. One of the invited speakers framed the discussion by asking, “what can the tech sector do?” The speaker pointed out that this marked a departure from asking — as is often the case in parliamentary circles — “what can Government do?” 

And it is certainly a critical question. What can the tech sector do? To put it succinctly: arguably, the tech sector has done a lot. And, arguably, it could do a great deal more.

During the pandemic, collaboration between the tech sector, local charities, and Government helped mitigate some of the severe disparities in digital access and skills that were damaging people’s lives. I mentioned a number of these programmes in the blog about #DPIS21 Day 2 on Data Poverty — from device donation schemes to free data packages. Roundtable speakers also brought up the many digital skills bootcamps and apprenticeship programmes spearheaded by companies — Barclays Digital EaglesLloyds Bank AcademyGoogle Garage, and the Amazon apprenticeship scheme. The tech sector is also a major sponsor of digital inclusion initiatives more broadly — from research conducted by charities to afterschool code clubs to APPGs themselves. However, this smattering of fragmented interventions can result in incomplete user journeys, riddled with too many opportunities for vulnerable people to slip through the cracks. Still, it is clear that the tech sector is doing a lot.

It can also do more. One speaker described the “interdependence of innovation and closing the digital divide.” Transformative innovation is contingent on digital and social equity. This means access and accessibility — not just to connections and devices but to the tech sector itself. According to the Wise Campaign, just 16.7 percent of ICT professionals are women. Tech Nationreports that women hold only 22 percent of tech directorships. And a 2017 report by PwC finds that just 3 percent of women say that technology would be their first choice for a career. There is also a 20-point gap between men and women who study STEM in school. These figures point to a societal responsibility across all sectors — and especially those that benefit and create profit from the digital world — to address the systemic inequalities that make the digital world unfair and uncomfortable for many marginalised people and also make it hard for marginalised people to participate in building that world.

Ultimately, there were two questions to address at the roundtable and two resulting categories of themes that emerged:

Driving Innovation

The discussion on innovation centred on education and skills. Industry needs a more digitally capable workforce and stronger tech skills coming out of formal education in order to work in the tech sector. In fact, digital skills are needed across all sectors, with at least 82% of online advertised openings across the UK requiring digital skills and paying around 29% over those that do not. Beyond technical competencies, one speaker pointed out that a future workforce also needs to be adaptable, as the tech landscape changes constantly. 

There were strong resonances in this part of the discussion with themes from the roundtable on capabilities, and the issue of adaptability points to the need for creativity and abstract thinking skills alongside technical competences.

In addition, speakers mentioned the need for diversity in the tech sector, articulating a desire to encourage young people from underrepresented backgrounds to consider tech careers. Not only is the participation of women, non-binary, and BAME individuals critical for to achieve social equality, but their leadership in the sector can also help ensure products and services meet the needs of the whole population. 

However, the conversation stopped short of fully engaging with the question of digital exclusion and the negative feedback loop between digital poverty and employment prospects. The Nominet Digital Youth Index reports that “Tech jobs are least appealing to those most impacted by inadequate tech,” with men and those on higher incomes more likely to consider tech a viable career. Motivation was not mentioned, but it is also key here. A lack of interest in technology or the tech sector can be rooted in many intersectional factors contributing to digital and social exclusion — including negative experiences online like harassment and bullying. According to the same 2017 PwC survey cited above, 83 percent of young women said that they actively look for employers that prioritise diversity, equality, and inclusion.

The discussion highlighted the importance of focusing on the small — local and regional success stories, and the role of small startup companies in the tech ecosystem. Supporting Combined Authorities that drive innovation in their regions as well as small businesses can not only open up opportunities for innovation but also encourage workers to consider working locally and in smaller companies.

Finally, the hunger and need for collaboration across sectors (including Government) and internationally emerged as a prominent theme. The digital economy is a global one, so it will be vital to learn lessons from other countries and build bridges beyond borders at a time when Britain is having to renegotiate its relationship with even its closest economic partners.

Closing the Digital Divide

On closing the digital divide, the roundtable discussion focussed mainly on infrastructure to deliver connectivity. In 2021 it is unacceptable that parts of the UK are entirely without internet connections, particularly in rural areas. Recommendations on this topic included the need for the telecom sector to be completely transparent about where there is market failure (that is, an area that is not commercially viable to connect) so that Government can step in or assist. 

And, as one speaker put it, the policy cannot be “connect and forget.” Connectivity must come with long-term, community-embedded digital and social inclusion in the form of robust digital education in schools and local resources on digital skills.

The rural-urban digital divide is still an important consideration in the UK, where of the roughly 2% of properties in England unable to get even 10 Mbit/s connections, over 50% are rural. Although it did not get a mention at the roundtable, Government initiatives like the Rural Gigabit Voucherprogramme have helped telecom operators extend coverage to harder-to-reach areas, including small and community-owned internet service providers (ISPs). For the last several years, I have done research in rural communities that are working to get internet connections, and they often face bureaucratic barriers (the process of applying for vouchers requires whole departments for many ISPs) or severe delays (when local councils give a tender to a provider that will not build within the year). Despite infrastructure sharing regulations that allow multiple operators to use existing passive networks, another issue in infrastructure rollout is overbuild, where telecom companies install more infrastructure where it already exists rather than extending infrastructure to new areas. These are important issues at the intersection of the tech sector and Government, which deserve discussion in a forum on the role of industry in closing the digital divide.

There is a tendency for conversations about the tech industry to veer toward what academics call “technological solutionism,” meaning that technology is seen as the answer to social problems. Forums like these throw up an important question, as the tech sector steps up to fill some gaps in digital inclusion: is tech solutionism inevitable when we leave the solutions to the tech sector? Almost in response to this unspoken question, a final big theme from the roundtable was the role of Government. Echoing the first two days of the Summit, discussions pointed to the need for Government to set a clear agenda and to help the tech sector with the kind of social transformation — of education, for instance — needed to address both inclusion and innovation. 

In my view, the conversation skirted some of the most pressing issues in relation to the tech sector’s role and responsibility in relation to the digital divide (which encompasses many more issues of exclusion beyond connectivity alone). For example, there is the issue of technology design — and the need to centre the experiences of disabled users, second-language speakers, the elderly, cognitive diversity, and more. There is also the issue of how the tech sector contributes to deepening disadvantage for some people — through surveillance and risk profiling, for instance. And there is the role of the tech sector in mitigating online harms — including both the content people access online but also how their data is extracted and repurposed. 

Of course, the tech sector is a broad category that could conceivably include everything from online platforms or telecom companies to hardware manufacturers or infrastructure suppliers. It is a challenge to unpack the role of such a diverse sector, let alone in a single roundtable. By the end of the discussion, though, everyone seemed to agree on one thing: technology is likely part of the solution to the digital divide, but it is certainly not all of it. 

“We all want to help,” said the final speaker, an attendee representing a tech SME. There is an unmistakable drive within the tech sector to close the digital divide and end digital poverty; we need a collaborative and critical cross-sector community to accomplish it. This is a space that the Digital Poverty Alliance hopes to occupy, as a convenor of dialogue and collaborations. As a member of the Digital Poverty Alliance community, I see these roundtables as crucial starting points for updating the agenda around digital poverty, and the recommendations and gaps that emerge will inform the UK Digital Poverty Evidence Review 2022. 

Read the interim evidence review here.

This roundtable was hosted by the APPG PICTFOR, in collaboration with the APPG Digital Skills, APPG Data Poverty and supported by the Digital Poverty Alliance.


Day 4: Education and the Digital Divide

“This is about the new normal,” declared a teachers’ union member at yesterday’s Digital Poverty and Inequalities Summit, which tackled the issue of education and the digital divide. The comment succinctly captured a chorus of personal experience and insight that reverberated with real feeling through the discussion. As the title of the roundtable itself suggested, this “new normal” arguably encompasses both the reality of blended online and offline learning that will endure beyond the COVID-19 pandemic and the realisation of the profound digital inequalities that are exacerbating an education gap for already-disadvantaged students. 

The discussion on education rather fittingly focused on what we could learn from the pandemic moment to inform a more digitally and educationally equitable future. Speakers universally shared a concern and commitment to apply lessons about what worked and what failed to future strategic planning about technology in education. As one speaker put it, the worry is that because this period has been so challenging, educators will now “walk away and just say ‘thank goodness’.” 

But none of the roundtable contributors seemed inclined to walk away. Speakers included three former Secretaries of State for Education or Children, MPs chairing other APPGs for Social Mobility and Education Technology, the Shadow Minister for Schools, the General Secretaries of the NASUWT and NEU, senior representatives of the National Association of Head Teachers, Ofsted, Teach First, UNICEF, BESA, the Learning Foundation, Times Higher Education, and Digital Unite. Several speakers recounted first-hand experiences of families asking for help accessing devices and connectivity during lockdowns — and many receiving it through schemes like the Department for Education’s Get Help With Technology programme. And there was much praise for teachers and schools, as well as community initiatives, like local football clubs, that stepped up to provide digital resources to children in need. 

It was clear that the pandemic exposed the scale of a longstanding problem: today, digital exclusion is a key contributor to social disadvantage. According to a report by the Sutton Trust, in the first week of the January 2021 lockdown, just 10 percent of teachers said their students had adequate access to a device for remote learning. And Ofcom estimates that more than 1.7 million children do not have access to a laptop, desktop, or tablet at home. 

And the disparities were greatest for the most disadvantaged; a UCL survey found that one in five children receiving free school meals had no computer access at home. A survey by TeachFirstreported that 84 percent of schools with the poorest students did not have enough devices and internet access to ensure they could keep learning.

In considering how we learn from the crisis and adapt to a new normal, several forward-looking themes emerged over the course of the discussion:

Teachers need support and training to make the most of digital technologies for learning.

“Technology is a tool, not an end in itself” was a repeated refrain in the roundtable. Strategic thinking around a digital education needs to focus on how teachers and technology can work together to deliver a better education — which also means a fairer and more equitable educational experience. There were many anecdotal lessons learned during the pandemic about best practice in online and hybrid learning. For example, one speaker pointed out that “there was a quiet accrual of more mundane uses of technology,” citing online vocabulary quizzes for foreign languages as an example. Although the “digital classroom” often conjures images of smart whiteboards and virtual reality headsets, there are fairly simple digital tools available to teachers that are under-utilised for engaging students in traditional classroom settings.

But teachers need training to make the most of digital technologies. Several speakers were part of the education system when information technology (IT) was a new frontier, and one recalled how “tech was used by some and feared by others,” which led to different learning experiences for students in the classroom. Many nodding heads in my Zoom grid seemed to indicate that this is still a relevant issue. Another speaker pointed out that young aspiring teachers are often assumed to have digital skills, and as a result, digital skills are not included in teacher training. But it will be crucial to develop pedagogy around online and hybrid learning, with a distinct focus on how to integrate digital literacies and technologies into teaching. Speakers raised open questions, such as “what is tech good at, and what are people good at, and how can they work together?” Or, “when is face-to-face teaching essential and when could online learning be more effective?” 

I would venture to suggest that behind these important questions about best practice and pedagogy is a need for immediate research on learning experiences during the pandemic with the people who delivered them: teachers. This research must include deep, thoughtful qualitative insights in order to develop better teacher training and equip teachers with strategies that work, and it needs to be done now — while the learning is fresh.

Education extends into the home.

The digital divide in education reflects a societal divide, and we cannot fix one without addressing the other. Schools are often expected to compensate for lack of support at home for children — they are meant to be great levelers. But speaker after speaker pointed out how schools cannot do this leveling alone. There is an educational continuum between school and the home and community, so thinking about education means thinking about all of these domains at once. 

The pandemic blurred the lines between school and home, drawing attention to the ways in which different private environments impact learning. For example, some children have quiet, private spaces to study, while others have to share devices and space, contending with constant distractions and demands on their time and attention. Roundtable speakers pointed out that this has always been the case; online learning during the pandemic just made these differences more obvious. 

As Alicia Blum-Ross and Sonia Livingstone write in their book based on survey data and qualitative interviews, Parenting for a Digital Future, “although both better-off and poorer parents try to use technology to confer advantage, they are very differently positioned to do so.” Socio-economic differences are especially pronounced in the home, where children are influenced by the dynamics of family and space. One speaker recounted how some parents on low incomes needed to borrow their children’s devices during the pandemic in order to work or search for jobs. 

And digital skills are also an issue among family members. “We didn’t train the parents,” one former Secretary of State for Education said, and this was a major oversight in the rollout of IT in schools. Motivation to engage with the digital world has a lot to do with context, others pointed out. After all, we know from national surveys, including Ofcom and Lloyds Bank, that people are most comfortable learning and asking for help with digital skills from people they trust, like friends and family. And with nearly a 34 percent reported increase in homeschooling since last year, addressing the digital divide in education cannot just stop at school gates; it has to extend to parents, who need access to free, lifelong digital skills training.  

We tend to focus on the digital divide, but technology offers opportunities, too.

The expansion of digitisation and digital technologies in schools has worsened inequality for many disadvantaged students, but speakers also painted a more optimistic picture about how technology offers opportunities to make education fairer and more inclusive. Digital technologies can help to engage students with different learning styles and needs, and it can also enable students to learn in more individualised ways than would be possible in a traditional, analogue classroom. The potential to adapt course material to different ability levels offers exciting possibilities for education that meets students where they are and accommodates cognitive diversity.

In addition, digital technologies can help improve teacher productivity and enable teachers to more effectively share knowledge. Despite an acknowledgement that teachers worked harder during the pandemic in a hybrid format than perhaps ever before, several speakers mentioned the role of technology in potentially reducing teacher workload by streamlining administrative tasks, including assessments. One learning from the pandemic was that online options for some educational engagements can be equalising; online parents’ evenings allowed some working parents to engage with teachers for the first time because they could do so from home, rather than traveling to the school. 

There was also enthusiasm for innovations that could lead to what we might call the “datafied classroom” — the use of data collection and analytics to influence student outcomes. One speaker mentioned the potential of machine learning to track students’ performance in class to help identify individual learning challenges that would otherwise go unseen. Teachers could be notified by digital systems if students are struggling or bored. “This is the direction we should be moving in,” the speaker said, adding that down the line there is the potential that a young person’s progress could be constantly monitored, ultimately replacing the need for exams. “That’s not a threat; it’s an opportunity.”

Listening to this roundtable discussion, I was surprised to hear such unmitigated optimism about using datafied predictions in education, especially following the highly controversial Ofqual algorithm that predicted students’ A-level results in 2020 and demonstrated biases that devastated many students’ university prospects and prompted public protests. Any discussion of student data and algorithmic processes in education should include at least a nod toward the equality and privacy implications of such an extensive proposed regime of surveillance and assessment. The Ada Lovelace Institute last year published a blog outlining what safeguards should be in place following the Ofqual debacle, and has also published resources on algorithmic accountability that can inform public policy. Although, as this theme in the discussion highlights, there are opportunities for technology to improve classroom experiences, at this stage no technological solution should be posited without critical reflection on potential harms and downstream impacts on inequality.

We need to involve children in decisions about digital education and tools.

The final and perhaps most important theme of the roundtable was on “learning from the experts,” as one speaker put it. The experts, in this case, are children and teachers themselves. Taking a children’s rights approach to education and the digital divide means not only addressing the whole spectrum of children’s wellbeing in education (from access to devices to critical thinking skills for dealing with the digital world), but it also requires that children are consulted in the design and deployment of technologies for learning. Designing technologies withand not just for children can result in better digital consent policies and more inclusive, accessible tools that meet the needs of people with physical or cognitive disabilities, language barriers, and more.

Academic research — by danah boyd and Sonia Livingstone in particular — has long argued for including children as decision-makers in digital policy. And the ICO has issued some guidance on how to engage with children in the design of technology, recognising the importance of user-driven design. Still, the narrative around children often focuses on protection rather than empowerment. But the equitable, fair, and just digital future we want must be built with children’s rights at the core.

Even in an hour and a half-long roundtable, with many distinguished and informed speakers, there were topics left untouched that deserve a mention here. For example, the discussion did not address digital inequality in higher education (a Jisc survey reports that 63% of higher education students had problems with wifi connectivity, mobile data costs, or access to suitable devices and spaces to study during the pandemic). Nor did it engage with the role of algorithms and big data in education — which, as scholars Elinor Carmi and Simeon Yates argue, must include education about algorithms and big data. 

To me, the most notable omission was the topic of “EdTech” — technology and platforms marketed specifically for educational settings, which has seen accelerated uptake during the pandemic. The language quizzes mentioned by a speaker (and referenced above in this blog) are an example. In many ways, EdTech is revolutionising learning in positive ways, helping teachers mark work faster and collaborate with colleagues and helping to engage students with multimedia and interactive content. But the adoption of EdTech deserves more circumspection. 

Technologies for learning are often integrated into the classroom without due consideration of children’s data or privacy and the long-term implications for who has power and influence in an educational system (increasingly, power concentrates in the hands of EdTech companies, which build the technologies and capitalise on collecting and analysing student data). EdTech makes a lot of things more convenient, but the tyranny of convenience (as legal scholar and author Tim Wu put it) is that it masks the choices that tech companies are making about how we live, work, learn, and play. The much-debated and -anticipated Online Safety Bill, which holds tech companies accountable for how their products are designed and marketed for young users, does not specifically apply to EdTech. As Sonia Livingstone has written, “Schools have few mechanisms, and insufficient resources, to hold EdTech companies accountable for the processing of children’s data. EdTech providers, on the other hand, have considerable latitude to interpret the law, and to access children in real time learning to test and develop their products.” 

And this is an even bigger issue, now that the digital divide is front-and-centre in our debates about the future of education. Some children — particularly the most disadvantaged — will rely on school-issued digital devices and free digital services and platforms in school and at home. If those devices and platforms are designed to track students’ activities, those students can be perpetually surveilled, entrenching inequalities in surveillance and policing of behaviour for the most marginalised. The issues of the school-home continuum and children’s rights are clearly implicated in the rollout of EdTech in schools, so it needs to be on the agenda for tackling the digital divide.

Acknowledging the interconnectedness of the various issues that arose at the roundtable, speakers championed the goal of working together. The topic of education is a particularly personal one. Speakers regularly remarked on how they were coming to the issue not only as a professional, but also as a parent. With the will to learn the lessons of the pandemic, all that remains is to ensure that we engage with the full complexity of those lessons — the triumphs and failures, the visionary innovations and the blind spots. “All the puzzle pieces are there,” said a speaker representing the Digital Poverty Alliance, “they just need to be put together.” 

This roundtable was hosted by the APPG Digital Skills, in collaboration with the APPG Data Poverty and APPG PICTFOR and supported by the Digital Poverty Alliance.


Day 5: Beating the Barriers – Online Safety, Security, and Accessibility

In September 2020 the Government announced a new National Data Strategy, which aspired to “make the UK the safest place in the world to go online.” Safety was at the heart of this strategy for tech innovation and growth, and its legislative manifestation is the draft Online Safety Bill, which sets out a new regulatory regime to tackle harmful content online by placing a duty of care on certain internet service providers that allow users to upload content and search the internet. Online safety, security, and accessibility were the focus of the Digital Poverty and Inequalities Summit on Wednesday, and the bill was centre stage.

Roundtable speakers and contributors included members of the Commons and Lords involved in drafting or evaluating the bill, representatives of Barnardo’s children’s charity, the Children’s Media Centre, TikTok, the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, and the NSPCC to name a few. Unlike the other summit roundtables, this one was distinctly more focused — with a piece of draft legislation in the pipeline, there is a clear goal with potential for impact on how people experience the internet. I was struck by how this fact rendered the discussion more consequential but perhaps less capacious. With the country on the cusp of legislation that would protect people from a panoply of online harms, harmful but elusive issues like inequality, bias, and discrimination received hardly a mention. 

That said, the Online safety bill has been heralded as groundbreaking, even revolutionary, with a great deal of potential to set a benchmark that more of the world will follow. Undoubtedly the anticipation around this bill is in part because it is arriving “late” in the evolution of the internet and online platforms. One speaker called it “a good late step.” It is also in part because its present arrival opens up the potential for it to be a repository of our regulatory hopes and dreams about how to make the internet better — to fix what has seemingly gone wrong. But if it is to be effective, the bill must rise above the specific grievances that make it urgent and necessary — to tackle the systemic and system-level issues that underpin the worst abuses online. “If too much is loaded onto this legislation,” one speaker warned, “it will fall under its own weight.”

Although perhaps contributing to that burden, the discussion centred on several issues that speakers hoped the bill would ultimately address:

  • The Online Safety Bill must do more to address the most egregious harms to children, especially exposure to pornography and grooming.

“Childhood lasts a lifetime,” one roundtable speaker remarked. And it was clear that most of the contributors to the discussion viewed the protection of children as a primary concern for the bill. Speakers see the legislation as a chance to achieve what the 2017 Digital Economy Act has failed to do: implement robust age verification for pornographic content and reduce child exposure to sexual content and sexual exploitation, such as grooming. Behind these concerns is a broader anxiety about the long-term social impact that these experiences can have on behaviour and wellbeing. And negative online experiences are arguably a bigger issue, encompassing a whole range of social and socialising experiences. According to The Wireless Report, four out of every ten young people have been subject to online abuse, and 25 percent of young people have received an unwanted sexual message online. Ofcom reports that more than half of 12 to 15 year-olds have had a “negative” experience online, such as bullying, and 95 percent of 12 to 15s who use social media and messaging apps said they felt people were mean or unkind to one another online.

Roundtable contributors also raised the issue of encryption and the potential of end-to-end encryption on social media platforms in particular to hide the activities of child abusers. There are no simple answers to these thorny issues. Encryption can hide illegal or harmful activities, but it can also protect privacy, activism, and free speech. So called “back doors” that would allow law enforcement to access certain encrypted content also opens up the potential for exploiting those security weaknesses by others. Although some speakers returned to the “duty of care” outlined in the draft bill to argue that platforms will have to prove that encryption, in combination with other design choices on platforms, is consistent with a duty of care to users, few of the issues that sit at the uncomfortable nexus between safety (or its foil, harm) and security are black-and-white. Flexibility in approach will likely be the bill’s ultimate strength, but it inherently leaves open many questions that people want answers to. Really, what people want is for tech companies to have to answer to them.

  • Ofcom must be adequately supported to take on its new power and responsibility under the bill.

Another theme from the discussion was the need for Ofcom to be resourced effectively to exercise its new powers under the draft legislation and to shoulder its new regulatory responsibility. Indeed, this is a whole new frontier for the regulator presently tasked with overseeing the telecoms market. The Ofcom chief executive has expressed some trepidation about the sheer volume of user complaints the regulator may face and the legal battles likely to be fought with tech companies that fail to comply with the new regulations. Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Nadine Dorries wants criminal liability for tech company directors, setting Ofcom up for a confrontation with the likes of Mark Zuckerburg. 

Bill supporters at the roundtable were quick to offer reassurance that Ofcom would be equipped to handle its new duties, but it is understandable that questions remain. The multi-billion dollar platforms in the eye of the storm have struggled (and often failed) to handle reported abuses on their own sites, which host billions of users speaking different languages and with different cultural reference points. Critics of big tech will argue (probably rightly) that those failures are largely down to lack of will; harmful content still makes money. But there are other factors, too. They are also due to an egregious lack of local, contextual knowledge — essential for tackling harms, which are socially constructed and embedded. And due to scale — companies have employed both human moderators and algorithms in an effort to manage the volume of content and complaints, and it is still not enough. Ofcom has reason to be concerned. And therefore, the bill’s drafters do, too. 

I was left reflecting on the important questions we still need to ask about the aspirational outcomes the bill is meant to achieve. Goals like transparency and accountability will be most impactful at the system level in taking companies to task, but what about user empowerment and agency? Big tech might think about users as a stream of data points, but this bill has the potential to treat them like individuals — human beings with a context as well as a complaint — and that would be truly revolutionary. So, to return to this theme from the roundtable, is Ofcom prepared to perform that role? 

  • A legislated approach to online harms must be adaptive and focused on the systems level in order to be future-facing.

The last theme worth drawing out from the roundtable discussion was the issue of future-proofing the bill. “Future-proof” is a common expression in technology development and deployment, but I think it is not quite the right way to frame the concept. It would be better (albeit less catchy) to conceptualise it as “uncertainty-aware.” Coupled with the almost universally shared feeling that this bill might be too little, too late in a digital ecosystem that has developed largely without the kind of toothy government regulation that can bite, there was also a palpable feeling in this Zoom call of wanting to get it right this time: getting ahead of the game, rather than playing catch-up later on. 

One roundtable contributor said, “When rules are too prescriptive, they’re easy to get around.” The solution, according to multiple contributors at the roundtable, will be to ensure the bill can be adapted to yet-unanticipated future scenarios. It must comprehensively address and define (to some extent) the dangers of the internet as we know it today, but it must also leave open the possibility that new powers and responsibilities may need to be bestowed on the regulatory process. It is important to recognise that this uncertainty-aware approach is not the child of necessity, born of the digital age. It is how laws are often made (and changed). In fact, one speaker explained that the idea behind the bill is not to do something radically new but to “level the field between online and other environments.” As media scholars have long argued, while the digital age has ushered in unprecedented technological and societal changes, it is overly sensational to treat it as entirely new and unfamiliar.    

What is difficult, I would argue, in the drafting of this bill is that there are such clear “perpetrators” of harm exacerbation and perpetuation: digital platform companies (Facebook and Google, for instance). This is what happens when we outsource our democracy to undemocratic companies in Silicon Valley, one speaker said. They are in our mind’s eye when we think about how to make this law work. And that is helpful on the one hand because it can concretise certain concepts and terminology in an effort to close loopholes for the companies we know we want to get their houses in order. But on the other hand, we also somehow need to keep a focus on the bigger picture: tackling online harms requires challenging the underlying logic of the digital economy, which trades on people’s personal data and analyses it without adequate consent in order to manipulate behaviour and generate more profit. At least one speaker made this point: it is not as much about the harmful material online as it is about how that material is surfaced and promoted by algorithmic processes. And this is an important point. As an investigation by The Markup found recently, algorithms on Facebook show some users extreme content not just once but hundreds of times. It is about the content and it is about what makes the content valuable — user attention

A joint committee held hearings about the Online Safety Bill that ended earlier in November and is set to conclude its report by December 10th and publish shortly after that. It will be interesting to see which aspects of this conversation — and contributions to the hearings — make it into the revised document. 

One theme that has consistently emerged in all of the previous roundtables during the Summit was absent in this one: the social and societal dimensions of online safety. One speaker did mention that there is a continuum between the online and the offline when it comes to harms. But there is a risk that in focusing on defining what constitutes a harm worthy of regulation, we never get to the crucial conversation about the uneven distribution of harms in society — how and why certain harms disproportionately accumulate for certain people. We know, for instance, that there is a gendered dimension to pornographic content and exposurewomen, girls, and LGBTQIA+ individuals have faced increased online harassment during the pandemic, and children with an impacting/limiting condition are more likely to experience bullying and other negative interactions online. But issues like accessibility did not feature in the discussion. Many of the harms exacerbated by digital content are socially embedded and conditioned. Therefore, platform regulation must accompany comprehensive sex and relationship education that addresses not only interpersonal communication and interactions online but also media literacy. Our digitally mediated lives are a mirror to norms, behaviours, and inequalities in society more broadly; the capitalisation of data and the algorithmic manipulation of data for commercial ends can turn the mirror into an anamorphic funhouse. A truly systems-level approach to online safety needs to take on systems of oppression and marginalisation both in cyberspace and in society as a whole.

This can only be done with the participation of people in the processes of accountability outlined in the bill. People need to be empowered not only to report harms but to define what harms are(right now, the draft bill leaves the category open to interpretation by the Culture Secretary, Ofcom, and Parliament in consultation with one another). And in addition to algorithmic transparency and accountability to a regulator, there must be transparency to the citizen-user in the form of meaningful consent regimes that give people more actual control over their data and reporting regimes that make people feel like the harms they have experienced are real, legitimate, and actionable. Legislation wields the semantic power to define certain terms and relationships, like user and harm. Tech companies have built digital spaces that define us (users) as consumers first and foremost. The law has an obligation to reassert our citizenship, instead.

This roundtable was hosted by the APPG Digital Skills, in collaboration with the APPG Data Poverty and APPG PICTFOR and supported by the Digital Poverty Alliance.

Rethinking Digital Skills in the Era of Compulsory Computing: Methods, Measurement, Policy, and Theory

Around the world, digital platforms have become the first – or only – option for many everyday activities. The United Kingdom, for instance, is implementing a ‘digital-by-default’ e-government agenda, which has steadily digitized vital services such as taxes, pensions, and welfare. This pervasive digitization marks an important shift in the relationship between society and computing; people are compelled to use computers and the internet in order to accomplish the basic tasks. We suggest that this era of compulsory computing demands new ways of measuring and theorizing about digital skills, which remain a crucial dimension of the digital divide. In this article, we re-examine the theory and measurement of digital skills, making three contributions to understanding of how digital skills are encountered, acquired, and conceptualized. First, we introduce a new methodology to research skills: participant-observation of novices in the process of learning new skills along with interviews with the people who help them. Our ethnographically informed method leads us to a second contribution: a different theory of skills, which identifies three primary characteristics: (1) sequence, (2) simultaneity, and, most importantly, (3) path abstraction. Third, we argue that these characteristics suggest the need to change current ways skills are measured, and we also discuss the policy implications of this empirically informed theory.

The whole article is available open access: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1369118X.2021.1874475

Book Review: Social Media and the Automatic Production of Memory

I’ve long had a fascination with digital archives, so much so that I spent an entire chapter of my PhD dissertation on the evolving, politically contentious digital archive of the 2011 Egyptian revolution…

So I was interested in reading Social Media and the Automatic Production of Memory: Classification, Ranking, and Sorting of the Past by Ben Jacobsen and David Beer and was lucky enough to be invited to review it for a special issue of Internet Histories Journal. The short book is a thought-provoking exploration of some of the technical characteristics of social media “memory” as well as the anxieties around what algorithmic labelling and surfacing of this emotional category of digital material might mean for memory more broadly.

Unfortunately, this review is behind a paywall. So, here are some excerpts, and if you’d like to read the full piece and can’t access the journal, please get in touch with me.

“The introduction sets out the core preoccupation of the authors – namely, the titular automatic production of memory. It is this automation, in which memories are identified, ascribed certain meanings and values, and then targeted at users through technological processes that render the social media archive worthy of specific scholarly attention. […] It is clear from the outset that the authors are not indifferently curious about the answer to this question; they are troubled by the implications such a loss of agency in our human experiences of remembering.”

“These platforms perform diverse roles beyond archive – as messaging services, storefronts, news sources, and more. What does this definitional imprecision mean for our understanding of social media-as-archive? What social role do archives play, and how do social media archives adopt, emulate, or deviate from those expected roles? Does it matter if an archive is constructed as an archive from the outset or comes to occupy that role, de facto, later on? “

“But the understated acknowledgment of platforms’ commercial imperative keeps some important questions associated with algorithmically mediated memory-making and -keeping flickering on the horizon, just out of focus. It is a question prompted by the theme of this special issue, and it lingers between the lines of Social Media and the Automatic Production of Memory. How much does the memory work of platforms contribute to their longevity? To what extent are platforms-as-archives keeping platforms-as-everything-else alive by creating deeply personal, affective ties to the companies that own them? In the constellation of values perceived, created, and traded on platforms, how much is owed to the automatic processes of sense-making and how much to our own estimation of meaningfulness? How is the entanglement of social media in the preservation and interpretation of personal pasts part of their enduring power – their resistance to redundancy? “

“Jacobsen and Beer’s dense little book, though, does offer an impressively broad – if necessarily brief – insight into algorithmic processes that are subtly and pervasively intervening in the construction of our personal pasts, presents, and futures. It is host to a truly thought-provoking conversation within an abundant bibliography of essential readings on memory, archives, and datafication, and the book’s theoretical and empirical contributions to the discussion are undeniably apt. “

Libraries on the Front Lines of the Digital Divide

Today, libraries provide essential access to digital equipment, services, and skills training. They are vital bridges across the digital divide. In this report, we present findings from our research in the Oxfordshire County Libraries, focused on two themes: (1) Exploring the day-to-day role libraries are playing in our digital world; (2) Understanding the lived experience of digital exclusion, through observations and data on library computer users and digital help seekers. 

Prologue

A young man approached the front desk hesitantly but with a smile. “Do you have phone chargers?” he asked.

Emilie, the staff member working on the front desk, couldn’t catch a break. In the 20 or 30 minutes I had been sitting at the front desk with her, there had been a steady stream of customers queuing with questions about books or printing. It was a weekday evening; people were coming in after work. I had recently switched my normal digital helping shift from afternoons to evenings because library staff had mentioned (on numerous occasions) that they desperately needed digital helpers after 5 PM.

Despite the rush, Emilie was consistently friendly and calm, working quickly and issuing direct instructions to keep the queue moving.

“Phone chargers? For customers? No, no, we don’t. There are outlets all over the library, though. You can use those,” she said.

“Oh, no,” the man said, “The thing is – I don’t have a charger. I need to charge my phone. I’m homeless, and I really just need to charge my phone for a bit.”

“Oh,” Emilie paused. “I see what you mean…”

“Do you have one?” he ventured. “For your phone? That I could borrow?”

This was the kind of front desk request that threw off the whole rhythm, stalling the queue. Over the time I had served as a digital helper, many library staff members had remarked on this: a lot of front desk requests need personalised attention that will take time, more than the minute or two that can usually be spared by staff, who are juggling multiple tasks.

I expected Emilie to shrug, maybe offer some sympathetic apology. But instead, she said, “Well, what kind of phone do you have?”

He showed her. “This kind.” He held up the bottom of the phone, exposing the connector.

“Ok, mine’s not like that,” she said. “But hang on. Can you just wait around here for a minute? I’m going to deal with these customers and then I’ll see if someone here has that phone.”

The man looked as surprised as I was. “Sure, yeah, no problem,” he said, and wandered off for a moment.

Emilie served the now fidgety cluster of customers that had massed around the front desk. When the queue receded, the man reappeared, hovering off to the side. Emilie caught sight of him, and said, “Can you give me your phone for a moment? I’ll ask around and come right back. Would that be OK?”

The man agreed without hesitation, and Emilie dashed off to the staff room, leaving the front desk to another staff member, who had just returned from shelving books.

Moments later, she returned. “I found one. Someone else has a phone like yours. I’m going to plug it in here, if that’s okay with you, and then when you want it back, you just come back here and ask for it,” she told him. “There’s always someone at the front desk,” she added.

The man was grateful; he thanked her and left the desk.

It was not your typical “digital help” session, I thought, but it was “digital help” nonetheless. How would I describe the service that Emilie just provided? Lending out personal phone chargers? It was not part of the library’s standard offering. But then again, it was – kind of.

After two years of volunteering as a digital helper in the Oxfordshire County Library, I had seen firsthand that “digital help” is hard to define, and it certainly is not confined to what we might consider to be “digital.” Widescale digitisation across all sectors and facets of everyday life has meant that digital needs are not isolated needs; and they are not merely about computers or internet connections – they are about being able to live an ordinary, well-rounded life.

Understanding digital exclusion in our digital age requires meeting digitally marginalised people where they are and glimpsing what everyday life looks like from their perspective. Libraries are a good (but certainly not the only) place to do this.

I started volunteering as a digital helper in my capacity as a private citizen, not as an academic researcher. I simply wanted to offer some hands-on support in an area that I worked on intellectually in my day job. But it quickly became apparent that digital exclusion didn’t look quite like what existing theory or policy on digital inequality or digital skills reflected. And surprisingly little research on digital literacy and skills had taken place in the real-life places, where digital exclusion is most visible and critical.

In a world that is digitising fast, libraries have become crucial bridges across the digital divide, whether or not they are prepared and adequately supported to play that role. From this vantage point, it is clear that dealing with the challenges of a persistent and pernicious digital divide means dealing with people as much as dealing with technology.

So, was Emilie offering digital help? Or just reacting to a personal need, on a human level?

Although this report is about digital inclusion, we would encourage you to resist drawing any strict boundaries around the “digital” as you read.

In what follows, we will demonstrate that the digital world – and therefore digital exclusion – is more complex than we might realise. Rather spuriously, the concept of a divide makes us think about digital versus non-digital, connected versus unconnected, literate versus illiterate, and other de-contextualised dichotomies that would treat digital inclusion as the reconciliation of an either/or. But the reality and the likely solutions really lie in the space between – where the social and technological meet.

Read the whole report >>

Refusing the Screen / Reclaiming Attention

The kingdoms of experience
In the precious wind they rot
While paupers change possessions
Each one wishing for what the other has got
And the princess and the prince
Discuss what’s real and what is not
It doesn’t matter inside the Gates of Eden
– Bob Dylan, Gates of Eden

Bear with me as I take you down a little rabbit hole with me, which I promise (well, I hope) can be useful to all of us, as we hole up our home offices. In England, we are currently immobilized by yet another COVID lockdown, and it’s as good a time as ever to reflect on work, life, and the digital world.

This e-mail is long, and that’s somewhat intentional. You don’t have to read it (that’s your choice)! But I hope that as I go along you will discover why I haven’t made this punchier — why I’ve arguably broken all the rules of good electronic communication. In exchange for tolerating my verbosity, I can assure you that I will not send out another newsletter like this in the near future. So, you have plenty of time to leave it, unread, in your inbox until you would like to return to it, if ever. It is not urgent. It is for a moment when you want to and can be slow about things.

***

In 2018 I became a volunteer “digital helper” at the Oxfordshire County Library, a public library in Oxford city centre. Many people probably walk past the library on a daily basis without noticing it is there. The spot is architecturally unremarkable — a generic glass-fronted building with a drab revolving door signaling conventional, institutional sterility. It could be a clinic. Or a post office. It just happens to be a library. In recent years, an ambitious renovation of Oxford’s central Westgate Shopping Centre demolished most of the library’s familiar retail surroundings, but somehow left the stalwart County Library in tact. As a result, the library — now more invisible than ever — remained, guarding the entrance to this gleaming commercial monument, tucked between an Urban Outfitters and a Comptoir Libanais. 

Inconspicuous municipal libraries like this one have gotten a bit more attention lately as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Such public spaces have gained a degree of notoriety as infection mitigation efforts have effectively annihilated them. It turns out that they were of greater importance to us as a society than we realized, always offering more than what was advertised on the label. In the case of libraries, it turned out they were more than book lenders; they also gave people a safe and quiet place to read, think, or pass time. And crucially for this pandemic moment, they provided free internet access, often to people with limited or no access to computers and the internet at home, or to people with limited digital skills who also need one-to-one assistance. 

That’s what I did as a digital helper — I helped people (lots of people) use the library computers and internet. My exact role varied depending on the needs of the library customer. But usually, I spent long hours showing people how to type a CV in Microsoft Word or set up an e-mail account for the first time. I would painstakingly talk them through each keypress, translating slowly and carefully the visual vernacular of the digital world. (“See that little square with a line sticking through it? That means ‘compose a message’. Click on that…”)

One day I was helping an elderly man who wanted to create an excel spreadsheet to collate all of his favorite poems and YouTube videos of instrumental music (it was a specific genre, but I can’t remember what it was now). A friend had shown him that you can find tons of poetry and music online, and he was simultaneously astonished and enchanted. He wanted to curate his own collection and share it. When I showed him that you can “drag-and-drop” images and URLs into the spreadsheet, he lit up with delight. “Show me again!” he said. But this time, when I dragged a photo (a public domain image of a poet) over to the spreadsheet, the screen froze. A small spinning wheel (the wheel of death — you know the one) appeared, and all we could do was wait. This happens sometimes on the library computers — the system can suddenly seize up, and customers complain about this clunky service all the time.

After a few seconds, I said to the man, “I’m really sorry, sometimes the computers here are so slow! Hopefully it won’t be long now, and then the photo we chose will appear right there in the spreadsheet.” The man was just gazing placidly at the screen, his hands folded loosely in his lap. He turned to me, smiling, and said, “What are you apologizing for? This is an absolute miracle! I don’t care how long we have to wait.”

I think about that digital help session frequently. I spend a lot of my day-to-day life feeling impatient, as though everything is urgent. If a website link takes even a few seconds too long to load, often I will just close it. I probably didn’t need to see it anyway. Or I can come back later (usually I don’t). I watch upload progress bars with irritation, wanting to send that e-mail attachment just a little bit faster. 

Maybe you’ve felt the same way from time to time? Maybe you weren’t aware of it. This impatience, I think, is mostly unconscious. We call this the “digital age,” but it is equally the “age of immediacy.” As many early media theorists suggested, digitization has changed our relationship with time (compressed it). And as recent, highly publicized plagues of mediated disinformation have demonstrated, digitization has changed our relationship to ourselves, to the truth, and to one another.

***

As you might know if you’re reading this, I study digital inequality “from the ground up,” as anthropologists like to say. In other words, my methods start with watching and listening to people, usually in ordinary, mundane situations. And then I progress to asking questions of people — about their lives, how they feel, what they’re doing. From that experience, I start to look for patterns and themes, and from those themes I might start to “theorize” (applying my own analytical lens to what I’ve observed in the interest of making it useful to others, like policymakers or other researchers). But generally, anthropologists steer clear of grand explanatory narratives. The diversity of human life and experience is too nuanced for that. And I am a staunch evangelist of nuance. 

Often I notice different things about my data at different times. Or, different pieces of data begin to stand out to me over time. That’s because it is not easy or natural to inhabit someone else’s perspective on the world. But it is interesting when it happens; those insights can shatter conventional ways of knowing and doing. And they can jolt us out of complacency. 

The man with his spreadsheet has often pushed his way to the forefront of my mind because, I think, it was a clear example of how I hadn’t seen things from his perspective. He, on the margins of digital literacy, and I, a “digital native,” had completely different conceptions of time and the role of digital technology in our lives. He has loomed large recently in my memory, undoubtedly because of the almost complete digitization of everyday life under lockdown. It is remarkable (miraculous, even!), but it also doesn’t feel particularly healthy. 

The digital world today is pervasive and unavoidable, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified this reality. We are all compelled to be online — for work, education, and even the most basic everyday services like banking or welfare. At the same time, the digital world we experience has evolved substantially under the influence of powerful internet companies that capitalize on our connectivity. The more time we spend online, the more money this digital economy generates. This is what has come to be called the “attention economy.” Our attention (time spent using digital platforms, which is translated into data) is valuable, and this economy intentionally distorts our incentives and behaviors to occupy our time and generate profit. 

Of course, it’s not all bad: we gain a lot of exciting and useful digital resources that make many aspects of life more convenient. But this convenience also comes at the cost of some seriously problematic outcomes for the natural environment, our bodies, and our minds. So, I have been contemplating how to acknowledge and address the issue of “attention” and “balance” in my own research on digital inequality and poverty.

Most of the time, when we talk about the digital divide, we mean the gap between people who have internet access and don’t, or the gap between people with sufficient digital skills and those without. Closing the gap is the goal. Greater “equality” is the reward (supposedly). But. But! If we take into account the experiences, challenges, and perspectives of people who fall on “the wrong side” of the digital divide, we can see it’s more nuanced than that. 

We might ask: what’s so great about joining a digital world dominated, as it is, by commercial interests that have entrenched an extractive and addictive logic to essential platforms? (Yes, I would begrudgingly suggest that even Facebook should be seen as “essential” in our current media ecosystem.) And arguably, this logic disproportionately disadvantages digitally and socio-economically marginalized people, who are targeted by predatory loan schemes and healthcare scams, penalized by algorithmic credit scoring, and profiled by their digital footprints. (I haven’t hyperlinked any of this essay because hyperlinking is one of the ways I would argue our attention to text becomes fragmented, but I have included a list of relevant references at the end.) 

So as a researcher interested in meaningful digital equality, not just in universal access or skills, I have been asking myself how digital inclusion — getting and keeping people online — can also empower people to make meaningful choices about how technology does and should affect their lives and our planet. This is how my thinking goes: we’re not really achieving digital equality, justice, or fairness if by helping people join the digital world, we’re also subjecting them to potentially greater exploitation due to the foundational, extractive logic of digital platforms. In fact, couldn’t challenging this logic help all of us achieve a better relationship with the digital world?

I think answering this question could be the “curb cut” of the digital age — a design change to benefit the “extreme use case” (the marginalized user) that actually benefits us all. 

Perhaps it’s even more urgent to think about these issues when we’ve already fully bought into the convenience of the digital world. Don’t get me wrong — Microsoft Teams and Zoom have been incredibly useful platforms in this socially distanced period. But for most of us, we haven’t managed to strike a balance between the digital and the non-digital. We’re all-in, connected 24/7. 

This line of thinking has led me to explore a small but growing body of literature on resisting the “attention economy.” And just in case this concept appeals to your screen-weary eyeballs and distracted brains as much as it does to mine, I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned so far in this exploration…

***

Rob Kitchin and Alistair Fraser’s recent book, Slow Computing (Bristol University Press, 2020), lays out the argument that the digital world we know today has been built on a foundation of two related forces: acceleration and extraction. Acceleration is the compression of time facilitated by digital connectivity, and the time pressures that this compression puts on us. Namely, digital tech puts pressure on us to respond (in various ways) and lose control of our personal time. This urgency and immediacy leads to an overemphasis on the present and a reversion to instinctual, rather than reflective, critical thinking. Extraction, in Kitchin and Fraser’s account, refers to the “increasing capture of everyday life as a continual stream of data” (p. 54), a concept that has gained notoriety in recent years due to scandals like Cambridge Analytica. Extraction leads to a “data-mentality” whereby we move through the world knowing that we are data subjects, and this affects our decisions and behaviors. This extractive regime also feels unavoidable or inevitable, making it easier to just “go along with it” rather than inconvenience ourselves or others by opting out.

Long story short, if you’re feeling the screen burnout these days, it’s probably about more than just the countless hours you’ve clocked on Zoom since last March. It’s rooted in the whole digital ecosystem and how it has gradually re-wired our social and professional lives.

In Slow Computing, Kitchin and Fraser present the concept of “slowness” as an alternative to the accelerating and extracting logics of our day-to-day digital lives. It’s “a way to characterize a type of response to digital life that prioritizes your needs and interests, as well as the public good for society as a whole” (p.11), based on “a general underlying philosophy […] that has a built-in ethics of care to oneself, to each other, and to the planet. It’s not simply a matter of changing pace, but also changing perspectives about what matters and then trying to enact a more sustainable, enjoyable, and fulfilling lifestyle” (p.13). 

Kitchen and Fraser call us to go against the grain, to resist in small ways that can help us reclaim our autonomy from pressures and punishments of a relentlessly (technologically) connected life. But importantly, slow computing isn’t about completely shunning the digital world or disconnecting entirely. I think we all know that such a position — of total withdrawal — is unrealistic. (One reason, perhaps, why practices of “digital detox” have morphed into a commercial aesthetic, a self-indulgent veneer masquerading as transformative ethics.) Instead, achieving slowness is about approaching connectivity with care and, crucially, attention.

That’s the focus of Jenny Odell’s compelling memoir-self-help-essay-collection-mish-mash How to Do Nothing (Melville House Publishing, 2019). She argues for reclaiming our “attention” for ourselves. Echoing the impacts of “acceleration,” she points to how all of our time has become “productive” time, and yet we are often less productive. Our digital lives are defined by how much stuff we can cram into the smallest amount of (network) time. But if we do more of “nothing,” Odell suggests, we might actually achieve more: higher quality work, greater satisfaction — even happiness — and real social change. Like Fraser and Kitchin, Odell isn’t extolling the unmitigated virtues of a life of total reclusion (she roundly critiques the inefficacy of commune movements throughout history). “Some hybrid reaction is needed,” she writes. “We have to be able to do both: to contemplate and participate, to leave and always come back, where we are needed” (p. 61).

I think anthropology is a “slow” discipline. It hinges on stepping outside one’s familiar surroundings to see a different point of view. Odell’s observes that the archetypal recluse or sage retreats in order to gain greater knowledge of the self and the world. “Mainstream society needs the perspective of its outsiders and recluses to illuminate problems and alternatives that aren’t visible form the inside” (pp. 55-56). Without traveling to distant shores or adopting a hermetic existence, we can all practice this removal within the defined sphere of our own lives by changing routines — resisting the monotonous conditioning of “how things are.”

“We absolutely require distance and time to be able to see the mechanisms we thoughtlessly submit to. More than that […] we need distance and time to be functional enough to do or think anything meaningful at all.” (p. 60)

Stepping away or out of the everyday can be not only personally liberating, but radically and collectively energizing. As our bodies disappear behind the screen, argues Odell, “so does our ability to empathize” (p. 24). Only by achieving some distance from this urgency-inducing culture can we imagine projects for gender, racial, environmental, and economic justice. But, she also points out (importantly) that refusal and rejection are often only choices available to those who can “afford” it — in other words, those of us with a “degree of latitude” (pg. 82) either on the individual level, where we won’t face significant financial or personal damage due to our refusal, or at a societal level, where we won’t be disproportionately penalized for our noncompliance. Indeed, refusal is often a luxury.

But that does not render it pointless.

In the early days of the pandemic, there was a great deal of optimism that this sudden shift in life-as-normal might cause us to reflect on what really matters, to slow down a bit. Maybe we would come out of this with a healthier relationship to work, travel, consumerism…?! But in many ways, the pandemic has intensified the de-humanizing, de-materializing effects of digital connectivity on our work and personal lives, as we have come to depend on networked technologies ever more completely. There is no better time to reflect on the promise and pitfalls of technology. With many people deeply disadvantaged by digital exclusion, it is easy to treat connectivity simply as an essential resource that everyone deserves and that we are lucky to have. But digital equality is both about expanding connectivity and also about being able to choose to disconnect.

Acts of individual refusal can potentially restore some “digital balance” to our lives — balance that many of us feel we desperately need. But collective refusal can register on a more public scale. It can shift practices and discourses. What responsibility, then, do those of us who are digital natives, fully connected, and digitally literate have in demanding a recalibration of our relationship with technology?

We have quite literally bought into the digital world as we know it, but the digital world as we know it needs work. Digital equality, then, cannot simply be about getting as many people as possible to buy into this digital world. It also has to be about changing the world itself. Practices, like “slowness” and “refusal” offer avenues for doing that work. But they are open mainly to those of us who have access, who are already all-in. If feeling a little less stressed, impatient, hurried, and distracted were not motivation enough on a selfish (and I use this term neutrally, to mean focused on the self) level, then maybe this societal imperative will be compelling.

I chose the epigraph for this letter because I like its cloudy tincture of sharp critique and ambiguity. Our kingdoms of experience are rotting in the wind, and in that negation — that absence of… what is it? maybe, empathy? — an entitled few are left aimlessly debating “what is real and what is not” from a parapet of privilege. A debate so abstract that it amounts to nothing, but so eternal it must amount to everything. 

Today, such debates about reality inherently implicate technology and our relationship to digitization. We might already reside in the parapet, captivated by or captive to our own point of view. Imagining and building alternative realities will invariably demand some new perspectives and some acts of refusal — to make space not just for a more equitable distribution of digital resources but for a more equitable ethics of digital life.

“Attention is a state of openness that assumes there is something new to be seen,” writes Odell. “It is also true that this state must resist our tendency to declare our observations finished–to be done with it” (p. 112).

So, I invite you to look into the ordinary corners of everyday life, and wonder at what you will find has always been there.

Thank you for giving me your attention. 🙂

// Practical Refusal

(Some small things we can all do to live more balanced digital lives, 100% lifted from the books referenced in this letter.)

  • Step away from non-critical work out-of-hours; put up a (friendly!) away message saying you are disconnecting until X time
  • Designate some spaces in your workplace (or home!) network-free spaces, where you do not use networked devices and instead pay attention to other things or other people
  • Reduce the number of “connections” you follow or maintain on social media to just one or two degrees of familiarity (the people you actually talk to, in real life)
  • Do not take networked devices into your bedroom: do not use your phone as an alarm, and try not to turn on your networked devices until after breakfast each day
  • Put your devices on airplane mode or turn off the wifi for designated periods of the day to set aside focused time for work, study, or leisure
  • Switch off your home wifi router for a defined period of time each evening and/or weekend
  • Instead of streaming TV or movies and making spontaneous decisions about what to watch, plan what you will watch that day or that week ahead of time; download those shows/films to your devices so you can watch in the evening without wifi (or the stress of making a decision/binging on one show)
  • Take an inventory of your daily tech use and determine whether you can replace any tech with analogue strategies, like using a paper agenda, or reading a paper newspaper
  • Reorganize the applications on your devices, placing distracting apps further “away” from the home screen
  • Schedule meetings using “clock time” rather than “network time” – that means resisting the urge to schedule things on the fly and instead scheduling meetings well in advance and sticking to the schedule
  • Practice exercises in attention — focus on a familiar place and notice the unfamiliar things about it; focus on something until it is utterly boring, and stay with it; push past the boredom to find something new, and interesting about it

**Remember: these practices will be difficult, and that is by design. We can only do so much alone — refusal is easier the more we do it together. So, shift your own personal practices and your expectations of others’ behaviors and practices. And forgive yourself when you fail. Taking it slow in a digitized world is hard. But resistance is rooted in the small things!**

// Reading (and Listening) List


Kitchin, R., & Fraser, A. (2020). Slow Computing: Why We Need Balanced Digital Lives. Bristol University Press.

Odell, J. (2019). How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Melville House Publishing.

Digital Dystopia: How Algorithms Punish the Poor by Ed Pilkington in The Guardian

High-Tech Homelessness by Virginia Eubanks in American Scientist

The Devastating Consequences of Being Poor in the Digital Age by Mary Madden in The New York Times

Algorithms Designed to Fight Poverty Can Actually Make It Worse by Virginia Eubanks in Scientific American

How algorithms rule our working lives by Cathy O’Neil in The Guardian

COVID-19 and the digital divide in the UK by Geoff Watts in The Lancet (full disclosure: I’m quoted in this)

COVID-19: The Need for a Social Vaccine by Fran Baum and Sharon Friel in Insight+

Curb Cuts – Episode 308 of the 99% Invisible podcast

// P.S. 

Give it your all: Find something you’re as passionate about as this PE teacher is about tying shoelaces.

The Remote British Village that Built One of the Fastest Internet Networks in the UK

Nestled between Lancashire’s stand-out beauty, the Forest of Bowland, and the breathtaking vistas of the Yorkshire Dales, the serene, postcard-perfect village of Clapham seems far removed from the COVID-19 pandemic. But when the British government announced a nationwide lockdown in mid-March, Clapham went on high alert.

Local residents formed what they dubbed “Clapham COBRA”, a volunteer emergency response initiative that aimed to mitigate the negative effects of isolation by sharing information, delivering supplies, and checking in on one another. Like many rural villages, Clapham is fairly geographically isolated and home to an ageing population, with most of its roughly 600 residents over the age of 45. But when it came to confronting extreme isolation, it also has a unique advantage: unlike much of rural England, Clapham boasts one of the best internet connections in the country – and the locals built it themselves.

Ann Sheridan remembers well the moment she got Broadband for the Rural North, known as “B4RN” (pronounced “barn”), to her house in Clapham in March 2016. She recounted to me over the phone: 

I remember my next door neighbours nearly coming to blows because their son downloaded the whole series of Game of Thrones on a 2 megabits per second (Mbps) internet connection. And none of them could do anything else on the internet for days, right? So it was obvious that if the community wasn’t going to be left behind … we had to do something.

B4RN started planning to roll out its fibre-to-the-home network in Clapham in 2014, and by the end of 2018, around 180 homes out of 300 in the village had been hooked up with an affordable full gigabit-per-second symmetrical connection (currently only around 10% of homes in Britain are even capable of receiving such a connection). The speeds are impressive, especially in a rural context where internet connectivity lags horrendously behind urban areas in Britain. Rural download speeds average around 28Mbps, compared to 62.9Mbps on average in urban areas. B4RN, meanwhile, delivers 1,000Mbps.

The internet is more important than ever during the lockdown, where lack of access exposes other inequalities in internet use and skills. But B4RN means much more to digitally and geographically isolated communities than the internet service it provides.

Fibre-optic cable reel in a sheep field. © Kira Allmann, 2019, Author provided

A community network

B4RN is registered as a Community Benefit Society, which means the business belongs to the communities who need it: community members own the enterprise, and in B4RN’s case, they also actually build a lot of the infrastructure themselves. As a result, the process of “getting” B4RN involves a substantial commitment – of time, training, money, and physical labour. 

Ann Sheridan was a B4RN “champion”, meaning that she – along with three other volunteers – headed the effort to build B4RN in her village. The role involved “all kinds of things”, she recalls. Building a fibre-optic internet network from scratch involves a steep learning curve and a lot of teamwork. Community members need to map their coverage area, secure permissions (called wayleaves) to cross their neighbours’ land, and dig trenches across fields and gardens to lay plastic ducting for the fibre-optic cable.


In the end, the connections B4RN facilitates in a place like Clapham are more than technological – they’re personal. And the impact of those connections is especially evident now. “Everybody in the village knows every everyone, it was like that anyway,” Sheridan explains. “But B4RN put rocket boosters under it.”

Over the last year, I have visited and spoken with people in many different communities that have had a hand in building B4RN, and each time I have heard a similar story: you dig B4RN into your own back garden, but B4RN also digs into you. The mutual understanding and genuine friendships fostered among local people during the building process last well beyond the installation itself. In Clapham, the collaborative effort that went into B4RN contributed to a pre-existing rapport that helped in the face of the coronavirus lockdown. 

As Sheridan put it: “We know each other. We know our strengths and weaknesses, so we can just crack on with things.”

B4RN co-founder Chris Conder demonstrating at a Friday afternoon computer club. Cake is always included. © Kira Allmann, 2019, Author provided

The connectivity divide

B4RN was born of necessity. To date, traditional profit-making telecommunications companies have struggled to reach rural communities. Mobile coverage lags behind, too: 83% of urban premises have complete 4G coverage, but in rural areas, it’s just 41%. In some areas, including many of the places B4RN operates, there’s no coverage whatsoever.

A major reason for this disparity is that private telecom companies have few financial incentives to extend their networks to rural areas. More physical infrastructure is needed to reach scattered villages and homes, and there are rarely enough potential paying customers in these sparsely populated areas to offset the costs. 

Government incentives, such as subsidies and voucher schemes, have helped to spur private companies to take on less commercially viable “builds”, but companies are still slow to carry them out and tend to prioritise bolstering existing infrastructure over building entirely new networks. Year on year, the pervasive digitisation of everyday life, from banking to entertainment, has made this rural-urban digital divide even more profound. 

According to the UK’s telecommunications regulator Ofcom, around 11% of rural premises cannot access even a 10 Mbps connection, and although Ofcom observes 95% coverage of “superfast” broadband (30 Mbps) nationwide, those statistics are collected from telecom companies themselves. Rural users often describe much worse service. 

In a 2019 survey of National Farmers Union members, 30% said they experienced less than a 2Mbps connection, and only 17% could access a 24Mbps connection. Rural communities are getting left behind, and their experiences of disconnection are invisible in aggregate statistics.

‘I wanted broadband’

On arrival in Clapham in spring 2019, I met Chris Conder, a straight-talking farmer’s wife who was arguably the driving force behind B4RN. Her unwavering campaign for broadband for her village, Wray, has spanned almost two decades and spurred more than one experimental infrastructure project. Like many people I’ve spoken to in rural villages, Conder’s desire for broadband was personal. 

“I was a carer for granddad, who had dementia,” Conder told me. Getting him proper care at their rural farm was difficult, but she had heard about telemedicine, and it seemed like exactly the thing she needed.

I would ring the doctor, and I would say, look he’s just thrown the newspaper in the fire and nearly set fire to the house because he’s read something in it that upset him, or he’s fallen on the floor, will you please send somebody out? And the doctor would send the psychiatric nurse a week on Tuesday. And when the psychiatric nurse came, there was a lovely old man sat in his chair, drinking his tea, happy as Larry. So, I couldn’t get any help with his medication, and his condition got worse and worse. And I knew I could do video conferencing if I had broadband, so I tried everything to get broadband … I just thought, if only the doctor could see what he was doing, he would say, oh my goodness, yes, let’s just change his medication.

At first, she investigated options through a major telecom provider. But the costs were high, and villages would have to endure a long wait. In some cases, communities were told to raise tens of thousands of pounds for a company to install a fibre cabinet nearby, but when it arrived, speeds in people’s homes, which were often miles away from the cabinet connection, were still abysmal.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had someone visit us without their own car,” I remember Conder saying on the phone to me in 2018, when I was planning that first excursion up to B4RN from Oxford. “How will you get around here?” Although not far from cities like Lancaster or Manchester, the train station where Conder ultimately met me was decidedly remote in certain consequential ways. One glance across the undulating hills dotted with forests and sliced through by rocky rivers, and it’s obvious why getting the internet here is no small feat. 

B4RN vehicle parked in a field in rural northwest England during a fibre installation. © Kira Allmann, 2019, Author provided

Building resilient, fibre-fed networks in rural areas is challenging and expensive for any telecom operator. In recognition of this fact, the UK government has committed £5 billion to rolling out rural fibre networks. The high costs are due to many factors. Homes are often spread far apart, and getting a connection from one property to the next requires obtaining legal permission to cross big stretches of privately held land. In addition, there’s old infrastructure in place – mostly copper wires laid to carry telephone signals – which companies have largely preferred to repurpose for carrying internet connections, rather than put down new fibre-optic lines across the many rivers, roads, railway lines, and ancient stone walls that stand in the way.

So, Conder and a few exasperated friends began investigating alternative options, like wireless mesh networking. Those efforts brought her into contact with computer network engineers at the University of Lancaster, and after years of collaborating, campaigning and cajoling, B4RN was established in 2011 – with Barry Forde (now B4RN CEO), a professor of computer networking at Lancaster University, at the helm. He contributed his technical expertise while Conder exercised her chutzpah.

Conder and Forde, along with a few other local advocates, made up the founding management committee, and all that remained was to turn their ambitious vision into reality without breaking the bank. And that’s how the B4RN motto was minted: “JFDI”; “just flipping do it”.

Just Flippin’ Do It

The B4RN management team started raising money for their network by selling shares in the business, but communities still needed to fundraise aggressively to afford the build, which could easily could have reached into the hundreds of thousands of pounds for materials and specialist contractors. They needed to keep costs down, and that’s when, according to Conder, the local postman in Wray made a game-changing suggestion. 

Conder sometimes ran a small hair cutting business out of her farmhouse, and the postman was in for a trim one day while she nattered away about the B4RN plans. After listening to her various apprehensions about actually pulling it all off, he said: “You’re farmers, right? You’ve got diggers. Why not dig it in yourselves?”

Preparing fibre-optic cable for fusing. © Kira Allmann, 2019, Author provided

And the rest was history. Conder and the other founding members had already been volunteering nearly full time for B4RN, but they realised that if they recruited almost every new subscriber as a volunteer (responsible for digging in their own connection), that would expedite the whole process and keep the costs low. Early adopters recruited neighbours, and neighbours recruited neighbours. They negotiated free wayleaves to cross each other’s land and pooled resources like spades, diggers, drills, and other equipment. The first village to get connected was Quernmore in 2012, and Conder’s village, Wray, nearly 20km away, came online in 2014.

When Conder requested a quote from BT for laying fibre from the nearest mast in Melling to Wray, BT told her it would cost £120 per metre. B4RN’s first round of shares raised £300,000 to purchase the ducting, cabling, and other equipment for their own build, and they compensated volunteers £1.50 per metre of core ducting they put down. Not only did they save money on the initial network roll-out across rural farmland, but they kept the funding entirely in the community from start to finish. 

Today, B4RN has connected roughly 7,000 homes in the rural north-west of England. Alongside the volunteers who still carry out the local build, they employ 56 permanent staff members to run the network day-to-day. A connection costs £150 per subscriber, and the monthly subscription for a full 1000Mbps connection is a flat £30 per month. It’s difficult to compare broadband prices meaningfully across UK providers, but Cable.co.uk reports that the average cost of broadband in the UK is about £0.86 per megabit per month. B4RN’s monthly price is closer to £0.03 per megabit.

For other communities considering their options in hard-to-reach areas across the country, B4RN now features as a “case study” in the government’s guidance on community-led broadband projects. And before lockdown, B4RN’s periodic “show and tell days” offered prospective communities the chance to visit B4RN-land and learn how to do it first-hand. As a result of this knowledge exchange, B4RN has inspired and trained other projects in places like Norfolk and Devon and Somerset.

Government support

Over time, recognition of the importance of affordable broadband connectivity has slowly grown, reflected in several important initiatives to spur infrastructure development in rural areas. And just as the scale of the COVID-19 crisis necessitated an imminent national lockdown in March, the government’s Universal Service Obligation (USO) came into effect. It grants people in the UK the right to request a decent broadband connection (of at least 10 Mbps).

In a public recognition of the UK’s digital divide, the 2019 general election manifestos of all three major parties contained ambitious broadband plans. Labour even promised to nationalise British Telecom (BT) in order to provide free broadband to the country, which was roundly derided. But the coronavirus crisis has trained a spotlight on the importance of broadband in everyday life and arguably given substance to the hotly contested supposition that internet access is a question of basic rights.

“Most people at the moment would switch the gas off, I think, rather than switch the broadband off,” Jorj Haston, the B4RN Volunteer Coordinator and Training Officer told me over the phone in April. 

B4RN volunteers digging and installing a chamber. © B4RN, Author provided

Crisis demand

Right now, B4RN is in the middle of building out the network in around two dozen communities. A further two dozen are in the planning stages. The process can take time, as communities scrape together funding and coordinate volunteer “dig days” to move a project forward. Lockdown has inevitably slowed things down, but the volunteer-driven nature of each community build, along with the open lines of communication between community champions and B4RN staff, have offered unexpected advantages when it comes to getting people connected under lockdown conditions.

In Silverdale, near Morecambe Bay, local B4RN champion Martin Lange is responding quickly to “desperate” local residents who are waiting on connections. Silverdale is mid-build, with around 400 homes online so far. “Over the last two years, we’ve learned all the tricks,” Lange says, talking about B4RN. “I’ve got all of this kit in my garage.” The decentralised nature of B4RN builds, where community volunteers often do much of the technical installation, has meant that champions like Lange can continue to make connections and identify local priority cases based on word-of-mouth. 

B4RN volunteers digging a trench for ducting in Over Kellet. © B4RN, 2019, Author provided

The week I spoke with him, Lange had just connected a Silverdale man and his family, who were self-isolating due to illness. The man had emailed saying they urgently needed the internet to do work and school online, with one child who has special needs. Lange blew the fibre to the man’s house: sending the fibre-optic cable through plastic ducting using compressed air. This is a job that would normally take an hour with two volunteers but took Lange four, working alone to observe social distancing guidelines. Then, wearing gloves, he fused the fibre into the router, working outside the house. Finally, he passed the sterile router back through the window.

B4RN volunteers and staff have been coming up with “quick fixes” rapidly in recent months, getting creative about how to install connections without getting too close. That’s a challenge for B4RN, which has been built in many ways on physical proximity. On “dig days”, villages would typically come together to work on various aspects of the network together. And there’s something for everyone to do. 

“People who maybe necessarily couldn’t dig, think, oh, this project isn’t really for me, but there’s so much more to it than that,” Mike Iddon, a B4RN champion in Burton-in-Kendal, says. They need people to draw the local network maps or to clearly label the ducting. Some folks contribute by providing tea and cake.

Fibre ducting trench dug by B4RN volunteers in Caton. © B4RN, 2015, Author provided

These days, B4RN staff and volunteers – like Lange and Iddon – are passing routers through windows, walking people through the digging and installation process over the phone, and setting up wireless hotspots in areas where the fibre hasn’t quite reached the homes. Where they can, B4RN staff are also implementing temporary connections for key workers and organisations. In recent weeks, they have connected a policewoman in the Ribble Valley on the COVID-19 response team, a haematologist in Cumbria who needed to set up a home office to serve his self-isolating patients, and a pharmaceutical warehouse in Lancashire supplying the NHS. 

Resilience

Lockdown has highlighted the importance of the internet. But paradoxically, B4RN’s model for success has more to do with the power of human connections that have long been integral to geographically isolated rural communities.

Modern times and trends have eroded many facets of rural life, as local institutions like village halls and shops have buckled under the economic pressures of ever-increasing centralisation of services in metropolitan areas – or online. Young people have fled the countryside for educational and economic opportunities in cities. In this context, B4RN offers a new local venue for community-building – a social space forged in and of the digital age.

B4RN volunteers moving a reel of plastic ducting in a field. © B4RN, 2015, Author provided

During normal times, a small bunch of B4RN volunteers – led by Conder – organise a weekly “computer club” at B4RN headquarters in Melling. People from all over B4RN’s northwest coverage area trundle in with their devices and questions, and get advice from local folks on how to set up a wifi booster or ring the grandkids on Skype. Under lockdown, it’s these in person services that are missed most.

In this rural corner of the country, B4RN is succeeding – doggedly, gradually – where other attempts at extending digital connectivity have failed. This mostly comes down to local commitment and local knowledge. The coronavirus pandemic has made apparent something these communities have felt for a long time – the internet is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity for participating fully in an increasingly digitised society.

In the process, communities have shored up their personal ties and re-energised a community spirit that can do more than get the internet to a few hundred local living rooms. In Ann Sheridan’s words, “It builds community resilience”. And that resilience is plainly apparent now. One thing’s for sure: come rain or shine, or a global pandemic, B4RN will keep making connections. They will just flippin’ do it.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation.