Digital inequalities in time of pandemic: COVID-19 exposure risk profiles and new forms of vulnerability

Robinson, L., Schulz, J., Khilnani, A., Ono, H., Cotten, S. R., McClain, N., Levine, L., Chen, W., Huang, G., Casilli, A. A., Tubaro, P., Dodel, M., Quan-Haase, A., Ruiu, M. L., Ragnedda, M., Aikat, D., & Tolentino, N. (2020). Digital inequalities in time of pandemic: COVID-19 exposure risk profiles and new forms of vulnerabilityFirst Monday25(7). https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v25i7.10845

Abstract In this article, we argue that new kinds of risk are emerging with the COVID-19 virus, and that these risks are unequally distributed. As we expose to view, digital inequalities and social inequalities are rendering certain subgroups significantly more vulnerable to exposure to COVID-19. Vulnerable populations bearing disproportionate risks include the social isolated, older adults, penal system subjects, digitally disadvantaged students, gig workers, and last-mile workers. Therefore, we map out the intersection between COVID-19 risk factors and digital inequalities on each of these populations in order to examine how the digitally resourced have additional tools to mitigate some of the risks associated with the pandemic. We shed light on how the ongoing pandemic is deepening key axes of social differentiation, which were previously occluded from view. These newly manifested forms of social differentiation can be conceived along several related dimensions. At their most general and abstract, these risks have to do with the capacity individuals have to control the risk of pathogen exposure. In order to fully manage exposure risk, individuals must control their physical environment to the greatest extent possible in order to prevent contact with potentially compromised physical spaces. In addition, they must control their social interactional environment to the greatest extent possible in order to minimize their contacts with potentially infected individuals. All else equal, those individuals who exercise more control over their exposure risk — on the basis of their control over their physical and social interactional environments — stand a better chance of staying healthy than those individuals who cannot manage exposure risk. Individuals therefore vary in terms of what we call their COVID-19 exposure risk profile (CERPs). CERPs hinge on preexisting forms of social differentiation such as socioeconomic status, as individuals with more economic resources at their disposal can better insulate themselves from exposure risk. Alongside socioeconomic status, one of the key forms of social differentiation connected with CERPs is digital (dis)advantage. Ceteris paribus, individuals who can more effectively digitize key parts of their lives enjoy better CERPs than individuals who cannot digitize these life realms. Therefore we believe that digital inequalities are directly and increasingly related to both life-or-death exposure to COVID-19, as well as excess deaths attributable to the larger conditions generated by the pandemic.

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Digital capital and online activities: An empirical analysis of the second level of digital divide

Ruiu Maria Laura and Ragnedda Massimo (2020), Digital capital and online activities: An empirical analysis of the second level of digital divide, First Monday, 25(7) DOI: https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v25i7.10855

Abstract: This paper explores inequalities in using the Internet by investigating several digital activities that require different levels of digital capital. Data collected in the U.K. through an online survey of a national representative sample (868 respondents) shows that levels of digital capital and type and quality of online activities are intertwined. The analysis shows that digital capital, conceived and measured as a specific capital, is entangled with the frequency/intensity of social, economic/financial means, ordinary/daily entertainment, and political activities, but not with learning-related activities. This work contributes to the literature in both empirical and theoretical terms by testing the reliability of digital capital and expanding its use to investigate digital inequalities. From a policy-making point of view, the awareness of citizens’ level of digital capital may help tailor initiatives to support citizens in using ICTs on a wide array of fields, such as job seeking, sociability, savings, familial relationships, and several online activities. Finally, this paper highlights that digital inequalities cannot be tackled by considering access and competence separately. By contrast, the adoption of measures that synthesise the two dimensions might help simplify policy-making’s initiatives to tackle digital inequalities.