Massimo Ragnedda (2018), Tackling Digital Exclusion Counter: Social Inequalities Through Digital Inclusion in G. Muschert et al (eds) Global Agenda for Social Justice, Polity Press, pp 151-157.
Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have granted many privileges to their users. At the same time, they have given rise to new and complex forms of exclusion affecting those already marginalized and disempowered. The development of the information society has highlighted the existence of obstacles preventing certain social groups from accessing and properly using technologies. This limited access and use of ICTs is defined as the “digital divide.” Those who are digitally included can more easily access services that impact positively on their health, occupation, education, and housing. Therefore, an exclusion from, or even partial access to, the digital realm has become a significant source of social inequality. However, accessing the internet, alone, is simply not enough to be digitally included. Indeed, it is also necessary to have the capacity to use, create, successfully navigate, and understand online content. These are the skills necessary to be a digitally literate individual once the technology is available. Digital literacy, therefore, indicates the ability to utilize digital infrastructure and not simply to access it. Digital inclusion, then, refers to the policies that will bridge the digital divide and support digital literacy. It tackles social inequalities by providing solutions for socially disadvantaged citizens to easily access and effectively use ICTs to improve their quality of life. This chapter will explain strategies that public, private, and voluntary sectors should follow to reduce digital exclusion and promote digital and social equity. These strategies are intended to ensure that people who are disadvantaged in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, location (urban or rural), or disability can access and enjoy the benefits of the information society. Digital inclusion initiatives are designed to give citizens the right access, skills, trust, and motivation to confidently go online. Digital inclusion projects aim to enhance the capacity to use ICTs in ways that promote engagement and well-being and, therefore, to counter social inequalities.
Recent studies of the digital divide show how insufficient and unequal access to the internet can create new forms of social segregation that exacerbate already existing social inequalities. Digital exclusion can lead to social exclusion affecting negative life outcomes related to health, income, and education, among others. Access to, and use of, ICTs should be considered as a new civil right—an essential necessity to be a full citizen in the networked society. In a digital-reliant society, where the internet is diffused into all sectors of society, being excluded from the digital realm means missing opportunities to improve one’s quality of life. Those at the margin of the digital world are being left behind, further reinforcing inequalities they are already suffering in society. However, it would be wrong to assume that individuals’ access to the internet can be automatically transformed into other social outcomes. Indeed, the digital divide should not be seen as a simple matter of access, nor approached as solely a technological problem. In the early years of the spread of computers and the internet, the digital divide was perceived as a one-dimensional gap between social classes’ differential possession of technologies. Policy makers thought that the only way to bridge the digital divide was to reduce the gap between those who connect and those who do not by offering cheaper and faster physical access. However, enhancing the access alone (reducing the first level of the digital divide) does not close the gap of multidimensional digital inequalities, which reinforce existing social inequalities and create new forms of exclusion from the job market, governmental institutions, leisure, and educational activities. To tackle digital inequalities and promote a more inclusive society, it is not enough to offer low-cost and more reliable Internet access, since this is only one of the elements involved in the digital inclusion process. Mark Warschauer, in his book Technology and Social Inclusion, explains four types of digital resources necessary for effective inclusion:
- physical (possession of computer and connectivity);
- human (education and ICT literacy);
- digital (relevant content in one’s language);
- social (institutional and society structures supporting access and use).
The digital divide tends to change as technology progresses, so policy makers need to adapt and update their strategies to suit new contexts. To gain the full advantages of the opportunities offered by ICTs, social science research suggest that the following individual factors need to be considered with Internet usage, digital skills; motivations, autonomy, self-confidence; and attitudes. These factors make a qualitatively different digital experience between users, impacting the length and extent of internet use, which are the base of the secondlevel digital divide. These further elements give a better idea of the multidimensionality of the digital inclusion process that cannot be approached as a matter of basic access alone. Therefore, to address digital inclusion, policy makers need to also provide digital skills and digital literacy training, which have been shown to yield positive effects on social inclusion and rates of political participation, positively effecting the democratic process. In a digital-reliant society it is vital that everyone has the digital skills they need to fully participate in society. It is crucial that effective digital skills and digital literacy programmes will ensure that the workforce is prepared for future technological changes. The benefits of digital inclusion projects go well beyond the single citizen and affect the community as a whole. Thus, to build a digitally inclusive society, we need to involve all sectors of society, to ensure that all citizens are able to access, use, and understand the benefits of ICTs. Full digital inclusion requires that we provide all citizens with affordable access to ICTs, and eliminate social, knowledge-based, and physical accessibility barriers. It is more urgent than ever to ensure universal access and digital literacy. A digital-ready citizen is not only able to navigate the web, but they are also able to manage their online identity and appropriately handle all personal and sensitive information online. Digital literacy initiatives can provide social and mental health benefits by helping individuals stay in touch with relatives and friends using ICTs, thus reducing feelings of loneliness. These types of tangible outcomes deriving from effective use of ICTs are at the base of what I call the third level of the digital divide. Any attempt to tackle social inequalities with ICTs, needs to take into consideration three levels of the digital divide: 1) inequalities in access; 2) differences in usage skills; and 3) tangible outcomes of internet use. A digital inclusion strategy will have positive impacts on social inclusion only by giving everybody the possibility to access, effectively use, and gain advantages from ICTs.
Recommendations and Solutions
The best social policy promotes digital inclusion to make the benefits of ICTs and internet usage available to all citizens, and particularly to open the door to the socially disadvantaged at the margins of social and digital realms. Successful digital inclusion projects not merely offer the possibility to access digital content, but also offer the necessary support to acquire the knowledge for proper and independent use of those technologies. Furthermore, effective digital inclusion initiatives train low-literacy citizens and prepare them for jobs in information focused industries, where a high level of digital skills is required. On a broader term, digital inclusion initiatives not simply support well informed global citizens, but also nurture digital citizens that are socially integrated in order to pursue fulfilling lives. The best digital inclusion programs are designed to enhance civic engagement, allowing full participation in community affairs and connections with local and national agencies for all citizens, regardless of social background. Best practice social policies are offered by communities providing digital inclusion projects that involve everyone in decision-making processes that affect citizens’ online and offline worlds. Best practices also involve giving citizens access to free services provided by local and national governments, as well as teaching them the digital skills they need to help them live better lives. Ultimately, digital divide policies and practices will enhance the quality of life of citizens who can access and efficiently use ICTs for community participation and engagement to fulfill their human needs and creative interests. If barriers to digital inclusion are not addressed, there is a danger that the digital divide will further increase inequality by cementing existing social divides. For this reason, it is also important to understand the reasons for non-use, to develop strategies for digitally including those at the margins of the digital world, and to demonstrate the significance and importance that digital technologies can have upon their lives. These understandings are vital in order to create a better and more inclusive society. Policy makers and communities, throughout their institutions, processes, and public awareness efforts, can concretely help communities to be digitally inclusive in three different ways, respectively related with the aforementioned three levels of the digital divide.
- Provide free or affordable access to ICTs.
Accessing the internet means not only accessing digital content, but also accessing services, resources, and opportunities. However, not everybody can access digital content. To address this problem, governments may need to implement new policies and infrastructure, to digitally include citizens by giving them the possibilities to access the internet, providing free access to digital technologies, including hardware, software, and high-speed internet. This could be done in several ways, such as offering public access computers, offering free wifi hotspots, or partnering with broadband providers to offer lowcost broadband or low-cost options for home computer purchasing. Moreover, access to ICTs for people with disabilities, with their full participation to the digital realm, should be guaranteed. These initiatives offer a wide range of otherwise excluded content to their users, particularly to those marginalized and vulnerable people and households that cannot afford the devices, services, and connection speeds required to fully access and use the internet. Bridging the first level of digital divide by offering to everyone the possibility to access the internet through an affordable and reliable service, including highspeed connectivity, is the first step in reducing digital inequalities in today’s digital society.
- Have community institutions provide digital literacy projects (libraries, schools, etc.) to meet diverse local needs.
As we have seen, access alone is not enough to counteract digital inequalities and tackle social and digital exclusion. Digital inclusion initiatives must also meet citizens’ needs, by providing skills and literacy training to help individuals develop the abilities to confidently use computers and the internet to solve everyday problems met in the digital environment. Assisting citizens in using ICTs, in navigating the web, and in evaluating and creating digital content, is vital to tackle the second level of digital divide. By providing knowledge and digital resources, individuals might enjoy the use of ICTs and make it a satisfactory experience and, therefore, lead to a more equal society and greater economic opportunities. Digital literacy and digital skills training need to be delivered in trusted and comfortable locations (libraries, recreation centres, schools, etc.) and supported by trained instructors. It is necessary to provide content, services and resources tailored upon citizen’s interests. For instance, senior digital literacy projects may focus on the basic digital training, while youth digital skills initiatives might guide young people toward professional technology use and enhance civic participation, while other digital training projects may offer guidance and support for small businesses interested in widening their horizon and move into the digital market.
- Provide ICT content and services tied to tangible social service outcomes
Finally, digital literacy and digital skills projects can help in reducing the third level of the digital divide by providing assistance and services in using ICTs to get some tangible results, thus reducing inequalities in the concrete outcomes deriving from the use of the internet. More specifically, successful digital inclusion strategies help citizens on a wide array of fields, such as job seeking, information retrieval, sociability, savings, employment, familial relationships, and offering improved learning opportunities. In this way, social institutions and policy makers are helping citizens to use ICTs to enhance their career, education or social and cultural life, and, at the same time, improving the whole community in which they are involved. Effective digital inclusion may positively affect community health care needs by providing more services and resources to those who need them the most. This is particularly true for the most disadvantaged and underserved social groups that, through the use of ICTs, can access services and support that they otherwise would not. Digital literacy projects need to focus on the outcome, rather than on the technology, training citizens how to take advantage of the economic, educational, and social opportunities available through ICTs. Tackling digital inequalities is a way to reduce social inequalities. The role of policy makers in driving digital inclusion is increasingly important, since citizens need not only access to the digital world (shrinking the first level of digital divide), but also the right skills, motivation and trust (second level of digital divide) to understand and enjoy the benefits of digital inclusion and get some tangible outcomes from it (third level of digital divide). This is particularly true for the most socially disadvantaged people (in regard to social class, age, race/ ethnicity, physical ability, etc.), which more than others, tend to rely on public institutions as the means of accessing the digital realm and all the services which are increasingly moving online. All citizens need to have the relevant access, confidence, literacy, motivation, and skills to properly access and navigate the web. An exclusion from this world full of opportunities and resources may further exacerbate deep-rooted inequalities.
Public institutions are becoming the frontline for a variety of government and local authority services, providing access and support for those who wish to access and use the internet. These institutions, when well equipped and supported by local or national governments, are crucial to serving the public in digital-literacy and digital-inclusion capacities. Policy makers need to make sure that citizens understand the full benefits deriving from an appropriate and effective way to use ICTs and how these uses may contribute to improve their quality of life and create an engaged community.
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