Inside the Digital Society: So who are you including?

Last week, writing about how we should review the outcomes of the World Summit on the Information Society, I emphasised its vision – especially its opening call for a ‘people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society’ (or ‘digital society’ as I think we should now call it).

You can take each of these three notions and analyse them for their meaning now and in the future. What, for example, will ‘people-centred’ mean when decisions that matter are mainly taken by computer algorithms? What is development, or ‘sustainable development’, as now preferred? This week, what is inclusion?

Inclusion and exclusion

Let’s get three things clear.

First, there’s a big difference between ‘inclusion’ and ‘exclusion’. They are not counterparts. The extent to which people are ‘included’ in economics and societies is a continuum. Too often, policies designed to address ‘exclusion’ focus on ‘the poorest’, ‘the socially excluded’ or ‘most marginalised’, at the expense of those that are merely ‘poor’ or have limited (but less limited) access to decision-making power, goods and public services.

Policies that focus on ‘the poorest’ or ‘most marginalised’ are palliative rather than transformative. They’re concerned to lift the life experience of those at ‘the bottom of the pyramid’, say the 10 per cent with lowest incomes. This is, of course, highly desirable from the point of view of social and economic welfare but its aim is to alleviate the impact of exclusion rather than address inequalities across society. To do that, you’d need to focus on the whole community, particularly the inequalities experienced by those who struggle to get by above that ‘bottom’ 10 per cent.

Inclusion and digital inclusion

Second, there’s a big difference between ‘inclusion’ in what society has to offer, and ‘digital inclusion’. All societies, political and economic systems, have power structures. Political, social and economic inclusion are about the ability to participate in the decisions that affect one’s life and livelihood, one’s family, one’s neighbourhood.

They’re about equitable access to many things that people value and that they can leverage to access opportunities – jobs, education, health services, financial security, decent housing, clean water, the ability to afford to get about by public or private transport. Access to ICTs may help people to access opportunities, but it’s not more important than lack of access to jobs or medicine or childcare.


Third, inclusion and exclusion tend to be (but are not necessarily) intersectional.

Those at the top of economic and social hierarchies tend to share some commonalities – inherited wealth, expensive education, gender, ethnicity, membership of the same social clubs, participation in the same pastimes (ski holidays, golf clubs), fluency in international languages (especially English: check out the language environment at this year’s IGF if you happen to be there).

Marginalisation is often – but by no means always – also cumulative, involving the inverse of some of the same factors as well as others (disability, poor health, breakdown of law and order in local communities, family breakdown and abusive relationships). You can’t fix this with Netflix.

‘Real access’ …

It’s always been a problem that the easiest way to measure ‘digital inclusion’ has been to measure access and connectivity. Almost all surveys of where we are in meeting WSIS targets or achieving an inclusive Information Society begin with data on who’s got access to the Internet and where. I’ve just, after some thought, been guilty of this again myself because it is the easy way to go.  But we should always bear in mind that it is very partial.  

As early as the Summit, back in the first years of the century, civil society groups including APC were already talking about ‘real access’ which, alongside connectivity, included the affordability of (then mobile phone, now online) access, the availability of ‘relevant’ (often identified as ‘local’) content, and the skills (from literacy through to research and analytical skills) required to make use of the new services that were becoming available. More recently, from survey evidence, we’ve added barriers based on fear and insecurity: ‘the Internet won’t help me’ has been joined by ‘it might even harm me’ in inhibiting some potential users of the Internet from joining.

The importance of these ‘real access’ factors is recognised more widely now. The pace of growth in Internet access is slowing because it’s not affordable to the lower income groups that make up almost all the unconnected. The gender gap appears to be growing because, in lower income countries, men are more likely to be above the financial threshold that enables them to buy a phone and use it. Though we still tend to start our measurement of access in raw data.

… and power structures

But there’s another factor, too, that matters here, which is to do with access to power structures. The most powerful are best equipped to take advantage of new digital resources. Most people don’t have the time, resources or, importantly, the contacts to maximise the value of the opportunities that digital technologies might offer. Those who are most marginalised have least opportunity to do so. This is another reason why ‘digital inclusion’ doesn’t necessarily reduce social exclusion or inequality but may, as several recent studies have suggested, actually increase it.

This is, in practice, where the impact on those who are most marginalised is most significant. Some governments, my own among them, are keen to make as many public services as possible ‘digital by default’ – ostensibly because it improves the quality of service (which experience suggests, at best, is arguable), but also because it cuts the cost (and so enables popular tax cuts).

The problem is that many people aren’t digital by default, particularly those who are most marginalised. The evidence suggests that there’s a proportion of most populations that can’t or won’t be. Making public services or welfare benefits dependent on digital access makes life more difficult for those most needy. The impact of requiring elderly, digitally-inexperienced job-seekers and benefit-claimants to seek jobs and claim benefits online was vividly illustrated, for my country, in Ken Loach’s film I Daniel Blake a couple of years ago.

So, three conclusions

Three closing points, therefore, on digital inclusion and its relationship with wider public policy.

First, digital inclusion/exclusion and digital inequality result from and reflect inclusion/exclusion and inequality in other areas. If you have problems affording or accessing healthcare or childcare, you’ll have problems affording or accessing broadband. If you’re life’s consumed with coping, making ends meet, just scraping by, you won’t have time or energy to browse the web and take advantage of all it offers.

Second, digital inclusion’s not a solution to economic and social inequality, as some enthused in the years round WSIS and some still do. It may provide resources which people can use to support themselves, address aspects of exclusion, overcome economic and social inequalities but it will be doing so effectively for those with the time, resources and capacities to take advantage of them.  

It can lift exclusion for some, but it’s doubtful that it will have much impact on relative inequalities and power structures across societies as a whole. It’s least likely to lift those who are most excluded out of marginalisation.

Third, as a result, policies to address digital exclusion should be seen as integral to policies to address exclusion generally. This does not (emphatically not) mean they should lead them. On the contrary. Too much thinking about digital inclusion has been built round ICT solutions – but the problems that bring it about are societal not digital: affordability, illiteracy, poor or limited access to education, gender inequality, discrimination against ethnic and social groups, the marginalisation of those with disabilities, high levels of criminality, lack of opportunities for people to lift themselves out of poverty.

These are the longstanding priorities of civil society organisations, and should be its priorities in the digital context as well.

Next week: some thoughts from this year’s Internet Governance Forum.

Image: "Close view of graffiti wall", by Jon Tyson

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.
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