Douglas White: We must all tackle the digital divide

One of the top challenges of this digital century is how we harness technology to create a more equal society.
Douglas White, head of advocacy at the Carnegie UK Trust. Picture: ContributedDouglas White, head of advocacy at the Carnegie UK Trust. Picture: Contributed
Douglas White, head of advocacy at the Carnegie UK Trust. Picture: Contributed

This is harder than might be imagined. It is also critical. As the rich countries club, the OECD, has said; inequality is not just a moral issue it is also an economic issue. Citizens in countries with greater inequality are all less well-off and also have less stable political systems.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s first stated aim was to make the UK a country “that works for everyone”. Questions of social mobility, inequality and poverty have rightly received considerable media attention in recent months. The deep-rooted, long-term nature of poverty experienced by many have put the focus firmly on essential questions of wealth, income, equality and opportunity.

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Add to the mix the launch of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s powerful ‘Solve UK Poverty’ strategy and the Scottish Government’s forthcoming Social Justice Action Plan and it’s clear that as a society, we’re currently engaged in a deep debate about whether and how we might live together more equally and more fairly.

Where does digital exclusion – being without access to 21st century technology because of barriers of design, cost, motivation or skills – fit within such a fundamental debate?

Ever since computers started appearing in our homes and offices 20 years ago, technology has transformed many aspects of our lives. How we work, communicate, consume, learn, engage and think. There is no question that this digital revolution has brought remarkable opportunities for improved wellbeing for the vast majority of people. We now enjoy more personalised services, cheaper goods and products, more choice, wider connections with others and radically improved access to knowledge and communication.

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There are, of course, risks associated with our immersion in digital technology. There are legitimate concerns about the erosion of personal privacy, while Ofcom data indicating that UK adults now spend more time on the internet than we do sleeping highlights the pervasive nature of digital that impacts on our lives 24/7.

Ironically the real risks in the digital world are far greater for those who remain excluded from it and who are – with ever increasing rapidity – being left behind.

Those who are digitally excluded do not benefit from the great many advantages that technology can bring. They are more limited in their access to public services, to channels for civic and democratic participation, to a wide array of knowledge and information, to opportunities for cultural and social engagement, to the labour market and to opportunities for education and learning.

The pace of change is only likely to increase in the coming years. Public services will fully embrace digital disruption, the ‘internet of things’ will become the norm for many of us, and augmented reality will soon begin to roll out more much widely. As this is happening, the gap between those who are digitally engaged and those who are not is quickly threatening to become a chasm.

Addressing these disparities is one of the great social challenges of our age.

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In a bid to better understand who is being left behind, along with if there are particular facets of social deprivation that are more closely associated with being offline, the Carnegie UK Trust and Ipsos MORI have interrogated the Scottish Household Survey dataset to look at the correlation between digital exclusion and social deprivation in Scotland in more depth than ever before.

Unsurprisingly, the analysis reveals the high degree of overlap between digital exclusion and commonly cited characteristics of deprivation. Put simply, those who are older, on low incomes, live in social rented accommodation or live in poorer neighbourhoods are significantly less likely to have digital access than the rest of the population.

However, the research established that the relationship between digital and social exclusion goes much further than this. Those who don’t have the internet are less likely to have a car; to have been on a flight in the past year; to participate in sport; to go to the cinema, a library or live music; to read, dance, sing or play a musical instrument; to volunteer; to use council services; or take part in outdoor leisure or recreation at least once a week.

Meanwhile, those with less active lifestyles, poorer mental health and those who feel less socially connected to their local area are more likely to be offline than their peers even after all other factors are controlled for.

Working status, qualification levels and age are the key predictors of whether or not someone is digitally excluded – with housing tenure and income also important drivers.

What does all of this mean for public policy?

It means that digital exclusion is deeply entrenched. It means that if we want to fix this then radical action is required. It means that all of us – charities, government, public service providers – who have an interest in tackling disadvantage, alleviating poverty reducing inequality and improving wellbeing must take an interest in eradicating digital exclusion.

To date, responses to digital inclusion across different sectors have tended to treat the issue as a standalone programme or delivery silo, important in its own right but required to compete with other, much more established players such as education, health, social care, welfare and housing for resources and attention.

Such an approach will no longer suffice. The world is now digital. If we want to enable everyone to maximise the benefits that this transformation brings – and mitigate the risks – then it’s time to move digital inclusion into the public policy mainstream.

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This embedding of a previously discrete concept is not new – it has happened before with for example, our approach to equalities or to rural policy – but it is not straightforward. It requires all those developing or delivering services with and for citizens to recognise the critical nature of this issue and to be sufficiently confident in their own understanding of the possibilities that digital has to offer. It needs real commitment and leadership. And it needs a willingness to try out new approaches, to fail as well as to succeed, and to share learning with others.

This is a critical social justice issue in the 21st century – we just need to realise it.

Douglas White is head of advocacy at Carnegie UK Trust