The current pandemic has caused a fundamental shift in lifestyles here in the UK and across the world. With children and adults spending more time at home – and needing to complete more tasks remotely – we are relying more and more on the digital services, platforms and devices than before.
People with digital privilege are able to use their access to mobile and internet technologies to live a better life. Normally this would be things like remote access to health services, additional education information, financial services and most importantly digital pathways to economic and political empowerment via access to free press and media. In reverse people in digital poverty become more disadvantaged, have less access to these services, and as a result are being left further and further behind.
Poverty is a rapidly changing term. Over 1 billion people have stopped living in extreme poverty since 1990. Since the World Wide Web was launched in 1991 mobile and internet technology have spread faster than any previous technologies in history, helping people come out of poverty faster than ever before. However, this is creating a new type of poverty – digital poverty – that is far harder to track and even more difficult to resolve.
Privilege in this instance is not just about having money to buy devices but also the understanding and knowledge to use them, and a geographical location with reliable internet access. There are parts of rural Britain that still don’t have reliable internet connections and some cities where access is greatly limited by old copper wiring that has not been modernised. According to a survey published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) more than five million people have never used the internet in the UK. That’s 5.3m Britons who have either never gone online or not used the internet in the last three months. This equates to almost 10% of the UK population. Of that figure the vast majority are older people, with 79% aged 65 or over.
The older generations that grew up in an analogue era are staring down the digital divide. Often unfamiliar or uncomfortable with apps, devices and the internet, many are struggling to keep up with friends and family through digital tools at a time when they are craving those human connections the most. Age is not the only significant factor for digital poverty; other factors include low income, disability, learning difficulties, ethnic origin, location, culture and language.
A clear digital divide is happening right in front of us, exaggerated and highlighted by the current pandemic. There is a greater need now than ever before to have access to and use of digital devices. Education and paid work have both moved online, with children expected to engage with online classes or at least access curriculum activities via websites and portals. Digital poverty has far less to do with not owning the current games console or newest smartphone, and everything to do with providing people with the tools to access the online world.
I would not be able to work in my sector without a high-speed internet connect, high spec computer and top of the range smart phone. I would struggle to live in part of the country where internet speeds are low as I couldn’t complete briefs on-time and I would struggle to communicate with clients. I also acknowledge that it is this digital privilege that has enabled me to be relatively unaffected by the pandemic.
Living an analogue lifestyle is not inherently bad, as long as it’s a choice. A person choosing to remain offline is perfectly ok. People with digital privilege even talk about the ‘pleasure in being disconnected’; how we relish the time and space to be away from our digital devices. This is also fine as long as we recognise that this is a position of privilege – we have the technology in the first place, and then the time to ‘detox’ and step away from them without it impacting our life.
How do we remove this inequality? Honestly, I don’t think there is an easy answer. There are lots of things that we could do; making sure services are both online and offline, not gatekeeping information behind online platforms, educating and empowering people to have the digital tools and knowledge. But this requires buy-in from government, tech companies and local authorities – who don’t seem to see this as an issue.
What can we personally do? We can and must make sure our services are not exclusionary to those that lack digital privilege by providing alternative ways to access them.