Ellen Helsper

Four reports with findings related to digital inclusion have been published in the last month. All indicate a significant increase in internet users in the UK (and the US). Although their figures show fewer people remain offline, this situation should actually lead us to be more concerned about digital exclusion rather than less.

  • Being offline has become the ‘privilege’ of a severely disadvantaged digital ‘underclass’.
  • The world around this digital underclass sees being online as the natural state, making it increasingly alien for those who are offline.
  • Those who are excluded are so for an increasingly complex number of reasons and ‘getting them online’ will be ever more difficult just as it becomes increasingly vital for survival.

While percentages vary, all recently published reports consistently show that at least one fifth of the UK population remain disconnected, and a considerable proportion of internet users lacks basic digital skills.  In the UK (OxISOfcom and BBC reports) and the US (Pew report) show that those who have lower levels of education, the unemployed, the elderly and those with health problems  remain consistently over-represented among those offline or  digitally disengaged.

Good news first

The positive side of the story is that the increase in internet users has come from groups where there is still ‘room for improvement’.  The Oxford Internet Surveys (OXIS) report states that “There has been progress on narrowing digital divides with a rise in Internet access for lower income groups, people with no formal educational qualifications, retired people and individuals with disabilities.”  Similarly, the BBC media literacy report suggests a significant decrease in internet users without basic digital skills in the last two years.

It is quite obvious that the larger absolute increase in users had to come from the groups where there were previously fewer people online. In the other, less disadvantaged, socio-demographic groups internet diffusion there just are not that many that remain offline. For these advantaged socio-economic groups the pressure and the usefulness of being online have been clearer for longer and it is almost impossible to be offline.

As I have argued elsewhere, digital inclusion is not (only) about getting more people online, it is about people using technologies in ways that are beneficial and useful to them in their everyday lives. Digital engagement that is contextual and relevant, that is, it links up with individuals specific (social) needs and has a direct relation to everyday concerns, is most likely to lead to broader use.  This broader use includes activities such as participating in online discussions, uploading (personal) content, filling out forms and building professional networks.  This kind of use most concerns governments and service providers because they are essential for participation in a digital society, but are less  clearly relevant in the immediate everyday life context of non-users and first generation users.

So what about the digital underclass?

Therefore, it is of concern that OxIS 2013 also points out that “Perceived benefits of internet use accrue far more to the next generation users, creating a second digital divide beyond mere access to the internet.”

This suggests that there is now a three tier reality when it comes to digital inclusion:

  • The digitally excluded (non-users)
  • The digitally disengaged (the narrow, little, first generation users)
  • The digitally connected (those who are fully online)

As I pointed out in my blog on the emergence of a digital underclassas the group of internet non-users becomes smaller and the internet becomes more embedded in everyday life of the majority, the digital underclass becomes more entrenched. That is, where you come from, how old you are, what your level of education is and the extent of your social networks and connections are even more important in determining your digital profile.  As more and more people go online, being offline has become the ‘privilege’ of a severely disadvantaged underclass.

I am currently working on a paper with Bianca Reisdorf which uses the OxIS and World Internet Project Sweden data and compares predictability of exclusion over time. The 2013 reality is that: when a person’s age, education level, employment situation, health level and level of social isolation are known we are now able to predict with almost 90% certainty if that person is online. In 2003 we were only able to predict this with 75% certainty (This percentage is slightly lower for the UK but higher for Sweden).

While it is clearer who the digitally excluded and disengaged are, designing effective and sustainable digital inclusion policies and programmes has become harder. The reasons individuals are offline in 2013 are more complex now than they were half a decade ago.

Choice?

These recent reports also emphasise that “the most often cited reasons for staying offline relate to issues of relevance or usability” (Pew Internet and American Life study, 2013). In the OxIS report this is interpreted as indicating that those who are offline lack experience with the technology, do not see the benefits and therefore digital exclusion is a matter of self-exclusion and therefore choice.  Nevertheless, the same report also suggests that getting people engaged is not simply about getting them  online to see the benefits of use because, as Bill Dutton points out many of those who are online are at best blasé about the internet.

Continuing research shows that the smaller but more entrenched group of digitally excluded are increasingly less likely to see the benefits of going online and more likely to see themselves as incapable of engaging in a digital world. In addition, they continue to give inadequate access and perceived high cost as reasons for not going online. This is true even for those who live in households where they are exposed to the internet by proxy and those who have asked people to use the internet for them, as well as for those who are online but are using the internet in a very limited way.

Therefore, the only way to prevent an amplification of existing inequalities of opportunity in societal participation is the creation of a society in which the digital (technology and content) is more relevant and geared towards those who are not online or less digitally capable. Raising the awareness of those who are digitally included about the reality and effects of digital exclusion is just as important in order to create an inclusive digital world as support, training and awareness raising amongst those who are not as digitally literate.

This article gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics.