Digital Engagement and Life Chances

Digital Engagament and Life ChancesMassimo Ragnedda (2017), The third digital divide. A weberian approach to digital inequalities, Routledge. pp 80-82.

The individual and social characteristics of the subjects determine the resources available to them. In turn, resources affect access and act as the ground on which new digital inequalities can develop. The unequal distribution of resources produces unequal access to digital technologies and then produces the first form of exclusion (first level of digital divide). Inequality in access also depends on the characteristics of the technologies and different pathways of technological appropriation, which result in differences in skills, and, therefore, new forms of exclusion (second level of digital divide). The sum of the inequalities considered prevents full participation and social inclusion. The appropriation of technology tends to influence the level of social participation. The variables that illustrate the positioning of the individual in society may be ‘individual variables’ (age, gender, ethnic group) or ‘social variables’ (income, position in the labour market, status group). These variables influence how we access and use the resources which are at the base of the process of inclusion or exclusion from society. The phenomena of social inclusion and exclusion are increasingly part of the European political and discursive agenda.

These concepts, as Warschauer (2004: 8) has underlined:

refer to the extent that individuals, families, and communities are able to fully participate in society and control their own destinies, taking into account a variety of factors related to economic resources, employment, health, education, housing, recreation, culture, and civic engagement. Social inclusion is a matter not only of an adequate share of resources, but also of participation in the determination of both individual and collective life chances … the concept of social inclusion reflects particularly well the imperatives of the current information era, in which issues of identity, language, social participation, community, and civil society have taken central stage.

Digital and social exclusion are inevitably tied together, and reciprocally influence each other. This is why this book is using a multidimensional approach in analysing digital inequalities. Accessing and using the Internet in an effective way may broaden opportunities, improve quality of their life and reinforce groups’ privileged position in society (third level of digital divide). By contrast, those who do not access or use it ‘not effectively’ risk losing significant existential opportunities in the economic, political, educational, cultural, relational, and social spheres (van Dijk, 2005). In other words, limited access to and use of the Internet affect citizens’ existential opportunities (DiMaggio et al., 2004). How and why individuals access the Internet is important for the process of social inclusion (Warschauer, 2003).

It also important to underline which social strata of the population are most exposed to the uncertainties of digital impoverishment. These include elderly people; groups who do not have an active job position (unemployed, inactive, and pensioners); individuals characterized by a low education and with limited cultural capital; individuals living in less developed geographical areas (rural areas) or in less developed countries (global divide). These disadvantaged groups that already suffer inequalities in the social system are also suffering inequalities in the digital arena, and are a few steps behind while the rest of the world moves forward (DiMaggio et al., 2004: 368). Here the parallel between social and digital inequalities emerges quite clearly. Furthermore, dynamic cumulative enrichment of subjects already more skilled and more experienced and mechanisms of impoverishment for those less familiar with ICTs are further increasing inequalities in society. This is similar to what the ‘St Matthew effect’ (by which since Merton [1968] one usually describing the various cumulative advantages) predicts regarding the advent and the dissemination of the technological: those who have more experience in the management of new technologies and more varied use of them will gain more benefit. This evidently has effects not only in terms of technological skills, but also in terms of socio-economic position and cultural acquisition.

Accessing and using information and cultural goods are not new issues in sociology. They have been extensively studied by Bernstein (1977), who mainly focused on linguistic abilities, by Bourdieu and Passeron (1977), who differentiated types of cultural knowledge, and by Attewell and Battle (1999), who concentrated their analysis on the differences in access to technologies.

It is worth asking – without adopting a technological version of moral panic – whether this idea is still valid in the Internet age. In the network society, where information becomes a valuable resource, we might argue that diversified access to and use of information may develop new forms of social segregation. The next section shall deal with this issue.

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