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What are digital inequalities?

I’m enjoying Massimo Ragnedda’s The Third Digital Divide because of how lucidly he lays out the theoretical issues raised by the notion of digital inequalities. This is from pg 4 of the book:

From his neo-Weberian perspective these questions encompass economic, cultural and political aspects. It’s a matter of status and prestige as much access to resources. To start from this position is helpful because it short circuits the tendency to note the empirical fact of digital disadvantage without considering the social stratification in terms of which this disadvantage is implicitly understood. It makes a strong case for being clear about what we take inequality to be rather than simply invoking it as a given.

What does it mean to regard someone as digitally disadvantaged? The relationship between digital access/competence and factors such as education level, income, ethnicity and work status has been well documented (pg 49). What does it mean to say they’re on the wrong side of a ‘digital divide’? While the increasing recognition of these issues within education is welcome, my concern is that terms like ‘digital poverty’ risk obscuring the conceptual questions which need to be addressed if we hope to gain any explanatory purchase upon digital inequality.

Instead we need to start by recognising what Ragnedda describes as “the multidimensionality and complexity of the digital divide” beyond the “binary division between those who access and those who do not access the Internet” (pg 4) which leaves us unable to grasp the internal differentiation of the digitally included and the digitally excluded. He lists on pg 26 some of the factors which are excluded by this dichotomy:

He builds upon scholarship which contrasts the first level digital divide of access to the second level of the skills to utilise access autonomously by identify a third digital level of the deployment of the ensuing benefits to increase one’s life chances in a digitalised market economy (pg 5). This is how he presents it schematically on pg 23:

This is important because inequalities can operate on each level. For example education doesn’t just correlate with digital access but with the capacity to use that access purposively as well. In this sense it encompasses the first and second divides, with implications for the third.

I really like how he historicises the concept of the ‘digital divide’ on pg 8, identifying how it emerged as progressive hopes invested in ICTs began to grapple with the evident disadvantage their uneven distribution was inevitably giving rise to:

If I understand correctly this conceives of access to and ability to autonomously use digital technology as a form of capital which can exercise an influences over stratification processes which are mot inherently digital. In this sense, it’s one factor amongst others which influences stratification, with the substantial caveat that it becomes ever more significant as social competition becomes ever more digitalised. This draws his attention to what he calls the ‘vicious circle’ between social and digital stratification (pg 5). The Internet can positively contribute to life chances but the capacity for it to do so reflects one’s original position, such that existing privilege and existing disadvantage tend to be reinforced by digital inequality. The crucial factor is the “different benefits and tangible outcomes of use” (pg 51) which follow from ICT use and their relation to pre-existing social inequalities. This is how he summarises the vicious circle on pg 48:

This is a really useful graphic on pg 57 which summarises the different spheres of life in which the vicious circle can operate. The point is that existing inequalities structure access to digital equipment, digital skills and their autonomous use which in turn act back on the existing inequalities through the benefits those digital elements facilitate or frustrate access to. In this sense, the widening of access to technology is not pointless but does come to seem like an incredibly superficial reading of the probl

I suspect we’re at a similar moment now where the evidence significance of digital inequalities for shaping experience and outcomes during the pandemic will give rises to concepts, framings and frameworks liable for prove every bit as sticky as the inequalities they attempt to represent will be. Which I suspect puts me into the category of techno-pessimists about social inequalities, in terms of the ideal types he lays out on pg 22, whereas pre-pandemic I would have been a techno-sceptic:

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