Calculating the ‘digital divide’

Access plus skills does not equal a solution.

Louise Madden

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Topics Politics

New Labour surfed into power five years ago on a wave of technological optimism, declaring themselves to be ‘the pioneers of new thinking’ in the face of two decades of uninspired Conservative IT policy-making.

Even when the post-election furore had died down it did seem for a moment that prime minister Tony Blair was embarking on a technological love affair on a scale hitherto unseen in UK politics. Coinciding with the appearance of the ‘information superhighway’ and bolstered by support from newly found friends such as Bill Gates, the new government of 1997 seemed to have its fingers on the pre-millennial pulse of the nation. Surely it would only be a matter of time before the UK became a bona fide information society.

One year into its second term in power, and New Labour’s grand IT project seems to be grinding to an undignified halt. Beneath the high-profile IT policy agenda that has emerged since 1997, concerns are beginning to be voiced that there is less substance to New Labour’s promises than at first had met the eye. There are a whole host of government-led IT initiatives that are not progressing as smoothly as hoped. The idea of Britain leading the world in e-commerce remains ambitious to say the least, let alone the establishment of a nation-wide broadband infrastructure.

Yet amid this melee of disappointment, New Labour’s approach towards tackling the inequalities associated with new technologies – the so-called digital divide – causes most concern.

The digital divide is the most important of all the technological issues that New Labour needs to get right for the long-term future of the UK. Governments around the world are realising that if they misjudge this cornerstone of the information society, all other efforts will be in vain. Despite its importance, however, the digital divide has so far proved the most misunderstood and abused concept by our less-than IT-savvy body of politicians.

This is not to say that they have received much help from the IT industry and other technology experts. Most technologists are happy to dismiss talk of IT-related inequalities as a passing phase – soon to be rendered obsolete by ‘universal access’ to mass-appeal technologies such as digital TV. More ludicrously, some commentators claim that the only people who will not be online in five year’s time will be those middle-class refuseniks who choose not to participate for reasons of cultural snobbery.

Yet anybody who cares about the state of the UK as an e-nation cannot afford to be so complacent. The IT community would be wrong to assume that everything will turn out all right in the end. The politicians are correct in recognising that something needs to be done – they are just woefully unsure of exactly what they are supposed to be doing.

In spite of New Labour’s bluster, the UK currently looks set to be as digitally divided a nation as ever. The problem lies in a collective over-simplification and fundamental misunderstanding of the issues. At present most people have been happy to reduce the whole digital-divide debate to a dichotomy of ‘information haves’ (good) and ‘information have-nots’ (bad). People in the information age, so the received wisdom goes, either have access to technologies such as the internet or they do not. People either have the skills to use technologies or they do not.

The overriding concern is that to be disconnected from information and communications technologies (ICTs) in the future will have grave consequences for people’s ability to survive in Labour’s brave new world of e-voting, e-banking and e-everything else. Giving people adequate access to ICTs and giving them the skills to use them is seen as the simple solution to avoiding this dystopia.

New Labour has introduced a wave of initiatives, programmes and pilot schemes based around the twin objectives of access and skills. Back in 2000, Tony Blair boldly pledged to achieve universal access to the internet by 2005. Online services such as learndirect and Worktrain are being introduced at a furious pace.

The UK Online strategy is establishing a nation-wide network of 6000 ICT learning centres based in existing community sites such as schools, libraries and village halls, where individuals can learn to use ICT as well as accessing online services. This activity is also being complemented by subsidies for the cost of home technology purchases and basic IT skills training for those on low incomes, as well as the pilot wiring-up of seven disadvantaged communities in England.

This blend of public provision and promotion of ICT has left many politicians rather gung-ho – as though the bridging of the digital divide is a fait accompli. For example, Vincent Cable, the Liberal Democrat spokesman for Trade and Industry, argued at a recent party conference that ‘the digital divide is not an absolute, which will be there forever. Nor is it necessarily wealth-related. Most people will be able to do a quick course at the adult training college and go to the local internet cafe. It is not so much about wealth, but more about age and using adult education imaginatively’.

From a social, rather than a technical, viewpoint such complacency is extremely worrying and can only lead to disappointment. The disarmingly simplistic phrase ‘digital divide’ refers to a set of far more complicated and enduring social issues, which are unlikely to be done away with in a matter of years. It is time that politicians and IT community began to construct a more sensible and realistic notion of to what the digital divide actually entails.

First is the myth of equality of access. People do not simply either have (or not have) access to technologies. Political thinking so far has failed to distinguish between an individual’s effective access, as opposed to their formal access, to ICT. Although, in theory, the formal provision of technology facilities in community sites means that all individuals living locally have physical access to ICT, such access is meaningless unless people actually feel able to make use of such opportunities.

For example, consider the increasing numbers of public payphones in a number of towns and cities that are currently being converted to offer e-mail facilities alongside their usual telephone services. Despite this formal provision, it would be a nonsense to claim that every individual in these towns and cities now has effective and meaningful access to email – especially when compared to individuals who pay to use email from their home or have free access at their place of work.

Instead of either ‘having’ or ‘not having’ access to technologies, access to ICT is a hierarchical concept. Issues of time, cost, quality of the technology and the environment in which it is used, as well as softer concerns of privacy and ease of use, are all crucial mediating factors in people’s effective access to ICT.

Secondly, the government is guilty of assuming that, if somebody has access to ICT and a level of basic skill, they will make meaningful use of it. Recent research studies tell us that if somebody does not make meaningful use of ICT once having gained suitable conditions of access then this is not necessarily due to technological factors (such as a lack of physical access, skills or operational abilities) or even psychological factors (such as a reticence or anxiety of using technology), as is generally claimed. People’s engagement with ICT is based around a complex mixture of social, psychological, economic and, above all, pragmatic reasons.

One of the primary driving factors behind people’s use of technologies is relevance, and many of the online services that the government is desperately trying to get people to use are no more relevant online than they were before in their offline form. Voting, taking an educational qualification or contacting your MP is no more likely to happen for some people just because it is suddenly possible for them to do so in an electronic form.

There has been a reluctance among politicians and technologists to recognise that people’s sustained use of ICT is dependent on far more than the economics of getting online and the skills to use technologies. What an individual can do with ICT is also intertwined with a cultural expertise, knowledge and comfort which people have often unconsciously absorbed and been socialised into over time; not something that can be easily taught.

Research also shows that the success of many people’s engagement with technologies is highly influenced by their social networks, which can be called upon for help, advice and support. As anybody who uses ICT in the workplace will know, ICT use is increasingly about being able to draw upon expert sources of advice, even if you are a perfectly competent user. Outside of work, people’s ability to foster, maintain and draw upon social networks of friends, relatives, neighbours and other sources of technological expertise is a critical factor, which cannot be developed overnight through government intervention.

The digital divide is a sophisticated social issue rather than a simple technical one. The reasons behind people’s use of ICT in their day-to-day lives are often less to do with having adequate opportunity and expertise to use ICTs and more to do with wider social and lifestyle factors. If the UK is to progress towards becoming an information society then this complexity needs to be recognised and acted upon.

At the moment New Labour has fallen into the trap of treating the digital divide like every other area of its policymaking – concentrating on the glossy promotion of high-profile initiatives and setting of short-term targets at the expense of carefully thinking about what needs to be done. Politicians should face up to the fact that the digital divide is not something that can be overcome and seen off by 2005.

There may well be no such thing as the truly equitable information society – but steps can be taken towards ensuring that the UK is less unequal than others.

Louise Madden is a research associate at the Cardiff University School of Social Sciences.

Read on:

From ABC to ICT, by Helene Guldberg

Idolising IT, by Neil Selwyn

No votes for e-democracy, by Mark Birbeck

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Topics Politics

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