This week I was proud to launch the UK Digital Poverty Evidence Review at the House of Lords – in a room full of people committed to eradicating digital poverty. People who all recognise that we all have a role to play in both keeping digital poverty on the political agenda and taking action in our own corners of world to tackle it.
What the review makes clear is that this is complex. This complexity comes down to one crucial fact: that digital poverty is as much a social problem as it is a technological problem. In other words, I’m here to tell you – having written something called the “digital poverty evidence review” – not to be too misled by the “digital” here. As the review highlights time and time again, the solution to the digital divide is not only about making life-essential technologies more useable; it’s about making life more liveable for people, and that might not have much to do with technology at all.
So, my goal, and the goal of the Digital Poverty Alliance in commissioning this review, was to radically update our understanding of the factors that contribute to digital poverty, taking into account what academics call the “socio-technical” dimensions of the digital world today – a world in which the social and the technological are inextricably entangled.
At this point, digitisation is pervasive and unavoidable. Everyone, regardless of how digitally connected or literate they are, has to interact with digital technologies, services, systems, and processes. Therefore, digital inclusion is no longer a luxury, something that would be “nice to have.” It is a “must have,” a basic requirement for living a full and well-rounded life. And this reality is now the context in which we’re trying to tackle digital poverty. The benchmark for inclusion and equity in this digital world has shifted, and it will continue to shift, as a result of continuing digital transformation and new technologies.
So, the evidence review spotlights three key shifts that absolutely must be acknowledged and addressed in our work to end digital poverty going forward.
First, in what is surely the ultimate paradox for this work, digital cannot be treated as a separate issue from other social, economic, and political issues. Today, the distinction between online and offline has become completely blurred. The challenge for us, then, is to keep the spotlight on digital exclusion and its contribution to disadvantage while also recognising that digital is pervasive, and disadvantage in terms of digital cannot be treated on its own, isolated from other forms of disadvantage.
The second important shift that has occurred in recent years is that the digitally excluded are still digital citizens. This is due to what scholars call “datafication”, which means the process by which information about people is turned into data that can be processed in various ways. We have already entered an era of data-driven decision-making, where automated systems use information about people to find patterns, make associations, and even predict outcomes. Even people with limited or no digital access and skills are subject to datafication. Datafication is the next frontier of digital disadvantage – it impacts the people’s outcomes, their trust in the digital world, and their motivation as digital citizens.
The third shift we need to contend with is that the digital world can be unfair by design. A growing body of literature explores how unconscious assumptions get built into the technologies we all rely on every day.
Digital poverty doesn’t end when people finally get online. We also need to think about the quality of life people will have once they are online. So, to truly end digital poverty, we need to ensure not only that people have a minimum level of access but that digital technologies, platforms, services, and systems that are safe, accessible, and privacy-enhancing.
In summary, the evidence we need to take into account in order to tackle digital poverty goes beyond what we’ve traditionally relied on – statistics on digital connections and skills – and now needs to encompass all the complexities of a data-driven world and how these are embedded in people’s social contexts.
The UK’s digital future will be a profound disappointment – and indeed, it would be shameful – if it simply entailed establishing the UK as a “global science and technology superpower”, as the new UK Digital Strategy puts it, while so many of the people of the UK struggle to afford broadband, lack adequate devices, do not have essential digital skills, and in short do not meet a minimum digital living standard for getting by in the digital age.
I hope the review is the first step in ensuring the Digital Poverty Alliance can make sure the UK’s digital future is a digital future for all.
Dr Kira Allmann, Ada Lovelace Institute