The Internet Age began with excitement and optimism. The World Wide Web was going to be a democratizing force that would allow anyone, anywhere in the world to access and share information.
Rapid Digitization of Our World
The COVID-19 pandemic has now accelerated the pace of digital adoption. We now work remotely, attend virtual classrooms, book virtual doctor’s appointments, buy groceries online and so much more. Almost every aspect of our daily lives has rapidly shifted online, and the effects of this shift will linger and persist long after the pandemic is brought under control.
The Dark Side
Yet despite some of the benefits, there is a dark side to the unprecedented digital transformation we have all been thrown into – digital inequality.
Those who were able to enjoy the advantages of the internet before the pandemic will likely continue to enjoy the benefits that it brings, while many individuals will struggle and be left behind. Those who previously used public cafes and libraries to access the internet have been further disenfranchised by the closures of many of these spaces.
A Barrier to Participation in Everyday Life
But it’s not just about the “digital divide” – a term used to denote the gap between those with and without access to the internet. The phrase digital inequality encompasses much more than that. Limited connection, slow speeds and having to share one internet connection with a large family can cause frustration and stress. Inconsistent access can prevent or slow down children from completing school assignments and adults from being able to fill out job applications.
Breaking Down the 5 Dimensions of Digital Inequality
Not only that, but the problem of digital inequality goes much deeper spanning the equipment the user has access to, their autonomy of use, skill, social support and the purpose for which they use it.
- Equipment – Many people only have access to the internet through their smartphone which makes college applications and finding new career opportunities difficult.
- Autonomy of Use – Some have to share access to one family computer among many members.
- Skill – Digital literacy is still a big problem among many users – regardless of age – who struggle to respond competently and intuitively to online challenges.
- Social Support – Differences in access to experienced technology users within one’s own community of family and friends can affect digital literacy because there is no one to turn to when challenges arise.
- Purpose of Use – While many are adept at consuming content via the internet, there is still a gap in use of technology to create and disseminate content and also to generate economic, social and political capital.
Clearly, the internet hasn’t mitigated divisions, rather it perpetuates and deepens them.
Some Starting Solutions
In today’s world, access to the internet is more than a luxury, it’s a necessity and we must start taking steps that bring us closer to digital equality. Some possible solutions include requiring internet providers to offer affordable high-speed internet plans to low-income households, promoting affordable and accessible digital literacy resources, and focusing on integrating with community partners to create social support networks. This, of course, must be balanced with the inevitability of misuse and the necessity of ensuring that access gets to those who need it most and not anyone else.
The best path forward is to leverage social media to pressure the big telecom providers to own the last mile in making sure that the least enabled are on an equal playing field. All companies who benefit from the surge in business caused by digital transformation should also play their part in shouldering the initiative of helping those who are being left behind.
We Can’t Ignore This Emerging Threat
With the dramatic increase in cyberattacks have increased dramatically just in the past 11 months – now 6 of our cybersecurity market leaders have all proven they are vulnerable – it makes sense that there’s been a focus on external cyber threats and national security. However, we would be remiss to ignore the internal threat that is emerging.
Ignoring the well-being of the vulnerable will have broad costs within and far beyond national borders.