In this guest post, Claire Preston unpacks the latest evidence on ‘digital inequalities’ – how disadvantaged groups can be further disadvantaged in their access to (and use of) the internet.
This year’s Oxford Internet Survey (OxIS) is just out and reports a “striking rise” in the use of the internet by low-income households and disabled people. The numbers of older people accessing the internet are also up; encouraging news for those who seek to lessen the digital divide. AgeUK’s recent Itea and biscuits week is a case in point.
But there is plenty of evidence to support a continued need for such efforts: internet access remains far from uniform across the UK’s population. People in the highest income category are still nearly twice as likely as those in the lowest to use the internet (OxIS 2013)and the cost of the internet is the reason most commonly given for stopping using it (OxIS 2011). Disabled people are also under-represented in online environments. More than half (53%) of the 7.1 million adults in the UK who have never used the internet are disabled, according to recent figures from the ONS. Age too can be a barrier to the digital realm. Around 39% of over 65s have access to the internet, compared to 85% of people age 25-55, according to OxIS 2011. These figures also conceal a north-south divide. Older people in Surrey are more than twice as likely as those in Tyne and Wear to have internet access, according to AgeUK.
Behind these eye-catching figures, though, lie all sorts of complexities…
Beyond headline figures in digital inequalities
For a start, there is the issue of the variation within categories. This point is well-illustrated by reference to disabled people. Not only does the definition of ‘disabled’ vary between surveys but the category itself glosses over major differences in impairments and the consequent barriers people face. This has led to some researchers focusing on the internet experience of people with particular impairments, rather than that of disabled people in general (see for example, this research). The term ‘older people’ similarly lumps together those who share some similarities by virtue of age but who may differ significantly in other relevant respects, such as income and education.
Secondly, accessing the internet is only one aspect of what is commonly termed the digital divide. There are also the questions of patterns in use and relevant skills. Research from OxIS 2011 identifies what the report calls ‘next generation users’. These people access the internet from a variety of devices and locations. They also have a more “advantageous relationship” with it. For example, next generation users are more likely to be producers rather than consumers of content, doing things such as posting videos, putting messages on discussion boards, writing blogs, running websites. The same factors which present barriers to getting online in the first place, crop up again in this context: people who are retired, unemployed or have a low income are less likely to be next generation users than their counterparts.
Many of these distinguishing factors also overlap: unemployed people are more likely to live in low income households, as are disabled people. This makes disentangling the impact of individual factors a tricky business (although there are detailed studies which do this). A good general approach in characterising digital exclusion is, therefore, to borrow from descriptions of social exclusion – that is to consider it a multi-dimensional phenomenon. There are various factors, such as being poor, being disabled and being older, which contribute to the likelihood of digital exclusion. As a rule of thumb, where these factors combine, the chance of digital exclusion is likely to be higher. The risk factors for social exclusion are also often the same as those for digital exclusion: poverty, poor education, unemployment.
The observation that similar factors determine social exclusion and digital exclusion is, from many perspectives, unsurprising. If, as Google vice-president Vinton Cerf has said, technology is a mirror of society, it follows that the inequalities of the ‘real world’ will be reflected in the ‘digital world’. But a more dynamic picture emerges if you start with the idea that society and technology impact each other – that they are mutually constitutive (see, for example, this book). If this is so, the facility for the internet to link people together may bring out people’s latent propensity for collaborative behaviour; the opportunities new media gives to excluded voices may challenge dominant ideas. Such arguments rest on the notion that technology has ‘interpretative flexibility’, in other words, it can be used and read in a variety of ways.
It follows that existing patterns of social exclusion may not be reflected in the digital environment, so much as reformulated by it. How that reformulation occurs is a moot point. It depends on various factors such as who controls the architecture of the internet, how policy on broadband provision is determined – and at a more practical level, on initiatives such as AgeUK’s Itea and biscuits.