In the third annual Gavin Mooney Memorial Essay Competition, entrants were asked to answer the question, “In the digital era, whose voices are being heard?”
The winning essay in the competition, by Amin Ansari, was published in Inside Story earlier this year, and it is Croakey’s privilege to post here a runner-up essay by Lareen Newman and Mike Gurstein.
As well as honouring the work and writings of Professor Mooney, the competition seeks to draw public attention to the topic he was most passionate about: social justice and health equity.
Newman and Gurstein’s thesis is therefore particularly pertinent when they ask, “whose voices are not being heard?” and introduce the concept of “digital equity, where everyone is able to get online according to their need and to achieve what is meaningful to them in their daily life, and where all unfair and avoidable differences are eliminated.”
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Lareen Newman and Mike Gurstein write:
This essay will argue that in the digital era, the question “whose voices are not being heard” is as important as asking whose voices are being heard. We will suggest that we need to go the Extra Mile to achieve digital equity so that everyone’s voice has a chance to be heard.
We commonly hear the voices of some (particularly those in positions of power or privilege) claiming that “everyone is online these days”. We will show that this is a First Digital Myth and moreover a myth which is increasingly being used as justification for moving to a whole range of activities (often exclusively) to the online environment.
The First Digital Myth: Everyone’s online
Whether it be national government services, local government information, research surveys, personal and community support programs, education and health services and more, everyone (that is people like “us”) seems to be jumping onto the “apps and websites bandwagon” – so it must be good!
In many cases, the First Myth provides the rationale for removing the physical counterpart to the digital service or for not providing easy and quality options for those who are not online or who, for whatever reason, do not wish to go online.
Many kinds of Divide
Despite the First Myth, national and survey data show that sharp inequities in Internet access persist in Australia even in the midst of the current “digital plenty”. People have talked about the “Access Divide” (people technically connecting to the internet—or not) and the “Use Divide” (whether people having access are able to make effective use of this access).
We are now seeing a “Speed Divide” emerge along predictable (and hence avoidable) socioeconomic and geographic lines as Australia’s National Broadband Network rolls out; those who are online variously take up faster speeds, and Internet-based services are designed based on higher (and thus more costly) internet speeds. New inequities are also to be expected based on faster and more complex (and thus in many instances more costly or necessarily upgraded) devices.
Of course, none of these “divides” would be a problem if offline opportunities were equal in quality and timeliness to their online counterparts. But as many aspects of life go online in the digital age, it is well to remember that those who are on the wrong side of one or another of these “divides” are almost inevitably the same people who are on the wrong side of other social and economic divides. They are thus often in greater need of services, information and other supports.
Muted voices and the blame game
A recent report by two well-known Australian non-government organisations startlingly shows that lack of internet access is a key component in the “bundle” of socioeconomic factors which constitute multiple disadvantage (other less surprising factors include long-term unemployment, lack of social engagement as young adults, low Year 9 reading levels, disability support, prison admissions and domestic violence).
Many people in these disadvantaged groups stand both to not have their voices heard in the digital era and to directly suffer as a consequence of their voices not being (digitally) hearable. This essay aims to draw attention to these issues and to propose a change of language and associated thinking, and perhaps to goad us all towards achieving broader base of digital equity so as to ensure that everyone’s voice will have a chance to be heard in the digital era.
Despite the volume of hard data demonstrating the contrary, why does the “everyone is online” myth keep rolling on? It would appear that those who say that “everyone is online” are really saying that “everyone like me, in my social circle, is online”. With internet use being so widely dispersed and taken for granted, the notion of the Digital Divide seems so… well… old hat, boring, so 20th century, and out-of-date. People, particularly those who are themselves comfortable and effective internet users, seem to think that the divide must have gone away by now.
But it must be asked, do those proposing that everything move online genuinely believe that there are no longer people who aren’t online? Or could it be that this myth serves some other purpose – for example by acting as a way to choke off access to services, and to cut administrative costs on the backs of those most in need of those services (but most unable to access those services digitally).
And the proponents won’t themselves be bothered if they can only access various forms online, or if they have to search for information themselves, rather than someone with more knowledge and skills being available to do it for them. Meanwhile of course, while institutions are encouraging service users to go online purportedly to achieve “access for all”, they rarely highlight the financial savings this will bring to themselves – one report calculated that online services cost the provider 1/100th the amount of face-to-face services.
Notably, many are making the somewhat bizarre statement that moving something online is the equivalent of automatically making it “more accessible” or providing “access for all”, meanwhile conveniently ignoring the reality of systematic inequities in internet access and the means to make effective use of it.
The above position also ostensibly absolves responsibility from those people who should be ensuring that universal access means universal access and not simply access by those who are otherwise enabled to achieve this access. Again bizarrely, the result is that blame is attributed to those without such access for being themselves responsible for not being able to effectively use the service, because for whatever reason they are unable to get online.
The undying belief in the equalising power of the internet could perhaps be expected from techno-enthusiasts. But it can also be heard among those who could and should be taking a rather more critical stance to these matters, such as healthcare organisations and government policymakers. For example, Australia’s National E-Health Strategy “encourages” consumers to get online for healthcare purposes, but says nothing about how they are to be enabled to do this.
The Myth of Choice
Another example is Australia’s new federal Digital Transformation Office, established in January 2015, which claims to be “transforming government service delivery to better meet the needs of all Australians”. It also claims that “every day, more Australians choose to interact with government on their mobiles, tablets and computers rather than face-to-face or over the phone”, even though the data shows (see graph below) that online contact with government services occurs for only one third of Australians with a high school education (although this figures rises to two-thirds for those with a university education).
It is also a significant leap of logic to assume that just because people are online for social purposes, they also want to contact government online. People may want to do this for simple and straightforward purposes, but for a complicated query they may prefer to talk to a person or, because of the nature of query, this may simply be a more appropriate medium for that activity.
Focus group participants, in a study of internet use among lower income Australians, complained to us about the increasing digitisation of life. They commented that making services ‘digital by default’, or pointing users to online options sends the message to the digitally unconnected that the organisation doesn’t want to hear their voice, hear their query, hear their complaint, hear their suggestions for improvement.
Why isn’t everyone online?
So, are we all being sucked into believing The First Digital Myth, that “everyone’s online these days”? Perhaps it would be more useful (and equitable) to recognise that “not everyone is online” and that we need to be disaggregating the data to look, for example, at internet use among different age groups.
This would clearly show us how it differs according to education level, reading/writing ability, rural-urban location, ethnic group and gender. And even more usefully, researchers are going beyond simply measuring “access” towards undertaking comparisons of “meaningful use” (such as how many people can effectively use consumer-oriented e-health initiatives) although this seems to have gained less traction in the policy world.
Also, we need qualitative story-based data where a wide range of people’s voices explain why they “still” aren’t online, what the consequences of this are for them, and what mechanisms they think would help their voices to be heard in a digital age.
Some will of course tell us, as they have in focus groups, that they wish to stay offline where they feel more confident and in control, or because they prefer relationally rich face-to-face communication – even though they run the risk of being seen as old-fashioned, behind the times, or left behind by those who are comfortable online.
Meanwhile the concept of the digital “divide” suffers from the fact that it doesn’t acknowledge the complexity of socio-economic inequities which interact to shape internet access and use (and non-use). Yes, national governments are rolling out technical broadband infrastructure. Yes, organisations are providing ICT skills training in communities. But there’s so much more to being part of the digital era. People in focus groups since 2008 have indicated a wide range of reasons why they aren’t online, including:
- Literacies – technical and digital
- Low levels of trust of telecommunications companies (feeling “ripped off”, experiencing bill-shock)
- Inability to comprehend or compare digital costs and contracts
- Having unstable or unpredictable income
- Lacking motivation, confidence, cognition, and feeling anxious online
- Having little or no social connections to help get them online, fix problems
- Having only basic reading and writing ability (even for native English speakers)
- Having a disability and physical inability (eg dexterity, eyesight)
- Having neighbours and/or friends who might steal their device
- Inability to “keep up” with devices (compatibility/functions)
This reminds of us of an iceberg: above the water are the Access and Use: we can easily see the percentages of which groups are/not internet users. But below the iceberg are all the factors and resources which continually shape this (non)use.
So whose voices ARE and ARE NOT being heard?
Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show us whose voices are most likely to be heard via digital media – as depicted in the graphs below. We see the familiar socioeconomic and geographic gradients that we see offline – it’s the better educated, those on higher incomes, those without disabilities, those in urban areas, those with good English proficiency…the list goes on.
Of course, we tend to graph Users as a positive development and often don’t graph Non-Users – they are the hidden columns which sit above the visible columns to make up to 100% and we assume that they will gradually diminish in proportion and eventually will disappear.
Many people think that Australia’s over-65s aren’t online, but the data show that they are: it’s just that those who are online are more likely to have a university education, as the graph below shows, or they live in urban areas, or speak good English. In fact, 80% of those aged 65+ with a university degree are internet Users, but almost 60% of those with only high school education are Non-Users.
The Second Digital Myth: young people are all online
Of course these data hide other complexities. Take for example, the fact that 97% of young people aged 15-34 are online in Australia. This tells us nothing about different groups of young people, such as those with disabilities. The Second Digital Myth is that young people, so-called “digital natives”, are uniformly online.
The data show that there are still young people who do not fit this stereotype and this includes young people with disabilities. The graph below shows that among 18-34 year old Australians with a disability, 16% are not online, but that Internet use also differs by the severity of disability, and that only half to three-quarters of users go online to communicate with family and friends.
Internet use may also differ among this group depending on the individual’s household income level (but this data is not publicly available). Indeed, among those who are online, research shows that internet use is likely to be limited to more visual options, such as watching videos, Facebooking or Skyping with family and friends and less likely to be for other purposes such as education, information seeking or citizen participation.
Research with this group challenges the second myth. It shows that there is much more ‘beneath the iceberg’ for this group than others, as they have disability-specific ICT needs, and they do not always get online easily.
Rather, they may need intensive specialist support from people expert in combining technical ICT support and training with knowledge of the disability field, to provide disability-specific ICT resources. Even before the experts turn up, these young people need to have a wide range of resources available, such as sufficient family income to buy devices and connections, and basic reading and writing abilities.
Research over the past 5 years has provided intensive in-home training in social media use to children and young people with disabilities. This is one group which can be supported so that their voice can be heard in the digital age. But their voices, and their needs in getting online (or in being provided with suitable, equal quality, off-line alternatives), can be drowned out by those who can shout louder: those with much higher levels of resources. One of the major selling points for the internet has been its equalising potential (and we put that word intentionally in italics). But, this is undermined by offline inequalities – as the graphs above show.
Problematising The Divide – Is Digital Equity a More Useful Concept?
In social sciences and policy research the concept of ‘problematising’ is useful – it asks whether something has been conceptualised as problematic (and therefore in need of attention and action), or whether it is taken-for-granted and action is seen as unnecessary. We can also ask ‘what is the problem represented to be’ and imagine what is not addressed and what the alternatives might be.
The Digital Divide has long been portrayed and publicly talked about as “internet use/non-use”, as a statement of fact. Perhaps it has for too long been seen as a static state, as described by quantitative data at a point in time. As an alternative, we could talk about what we want to see – Digital Equity, where everyone is able to get online according to their need and to achieve what is meaningful to them in their daily life, and where all unfair and avoidable differences are eliminated.
However, the concept of digital equity also needs to include provision that we may never see 100% of any population or group online, or online for particularly purposes – they may choose to communicate in non-digital ways which better suit their needs and purposes, and in ways which they feel most able to get their voices heard.
These non-digital options must therefore also be available in the digital era. This may include entries to an essay competition being required to be submitted in hard copy via traditional postal services (disparagingly called “snail-mail”) – a format which is arguably more readily usable by everyone than online submission, even if it is not such a timely medium as the internet and may require more planning ahead and financial outlay to arrive on time.
The digital upperclass and underclass
Our work suggests we need to reconceptualise the problem away from one concerning a “digital divide” because this focus has not led to the disappearance of unfair digital differences. Ellen Helsper even suggests that a digital underclass is emerging in High Income Countries, where digital inequities will persist even as younger generations grow up, because digital use is underlain by ongoing offline socioeconomic inequalities.
Those higher up the digital gradient are by definition (and as shown in the data) those with a higher education, higher income and greater social power – a sort of ‘digital upperclass’. They are likely to be invisibly dominating the creation and design of the digital world for people like themselves, including in key areas of government such as education and health. Perhaps they have little understanding of what others need to get online, or why others might not want their voices to be heard through digital means. This group may not see their privileged resource base which underpins their own internet use.
The concept of digital equity adds a moral imperative and could arguably draw more public attention to the social justice issues of those who are not online (or who do not have the resources to get online, or are not having those resources made available to them) so that their voices can be heard in the digital era.
The concept of digital equity can help reframe ‘the problem’ into an avoidable and remediable difference which governments and civil society should act to change. This seems to rarely be acknowledged by those people who believe that putting things online automatically makes things ‘universally accessible’.
Equity isn’t just access
Meanwhile it is quite evident that things are practically accessible only if the user has the resources and abilities to actually use them. Indeed, Gavin Mooney wrote many years ago that policy usually interprets equity as ‘access’ rather than ‘use’.
National and local strategies such as President Obama’s new ConnectHome initiative in the USA are needed which seriously consider how to translate into action the rhetoric about ‘digital access for all’.
Presentation of the problem as solely a lack of physical infrastructure (and, for example, responding by building a universal broadband network) and/or a lack of individual ICT skills (and responding with initiatives targeted at individual behaviour change, such as Broadband for Seniors classes) ignores the socioeconomic and family contexts which shape the resources, skills and motivations needed to get online.
Structural issues – beyond the individual
Turning digital access into meaningful use requires us to address the structures which perpetuate entrenched social and economic inequities which shape internet non-use. It is not unreasonable to suggest that those higher up the digital gradient have a social responsibility to not only celebrate as more and more people join them in the digital age, but to also acknowledge those who continue to be internet non-users.
The former group needs to apply their power to help the latter get online, or to work with the non-users to create appropriate non-digital options which are of equal quality to digital options. Otherwise, change is focused on changing ‘the digitally excluded’ people, rather than on changing the structures which cause the digital exclusion.
The issue of who is and is not online (or not online confidently, frequently, etc) becomes more serious when we consider the current, and potentially greater future, role of the internet in education opportunities, research and democratic processes, and what this means for whose voices will be heard or silenced.
Already, many local councils have a website as well as ‘on-hold messages’ which direct phone callers to their website. These assume that all residents in the council area have internet access and want to contact council online. However, an analysis of an Australian website set up as a universal access site to publicise community events was found to be more frequently accessed by those from better-off suburbs.
Similarly, the increasing use of online surveys on the premise that they are more accessible by more people, has led to greater participation by the better educated. Likewise, the use of social networking sites such as Twitter or Facebook as primary means of communication, or feedback on the policy or administrative processes, discriminates severely against those not able or willing to go online to express their opinions.
This means that any results from an internet-based survey or other on-line opinion gathering should provide socio-demographic data to show whose voices are being represented and whose are not. Such surveys should not purport to be representing everybody’s voice unless participants are randomly selected and are nationally representative on a socio-economic and demographic basis.
There is a lesson here both for those who collect and present data, and those who read and use the results. These issues will become even more serious if (or when) elections become online-exclusive.
We all need to go The Extra Mile
The subtitle of this essay proposes that, as a society, we need to go the Extra Mile – to make the extra effort – to ensure everyone’s voice is heard in the digital age. The subtitle plays on the Last Mile concept – referring to connecting the geographically more remote ends of communications infrastructure, such as in Australia’s Outback or Canada’s remote and rural areas.
There may be people who never will directly go online, and their voices may need to be mediated by others who go the Extra Mile to help them get online ‘by proxy’ or through brokered use. At the institutional level, banks could, for example, go the Extra Mile to develop online banking options which are accessible by those with low text literacy or low mainstream language proficiency.
It may mean in some cases, that funders have to go the Extra Mile by allocating considerably more money and time to very intensive programs to develop structural supports to allow certain groups to get online. For young people with communication disabilities to get online, designers of mainstream devices could go the Extra Mile to incorporate standard compatibility options to connect with disability assistive technologies.
In other cases, whole communities can be supported through an approach which provides capacity for independence and healing, and social cultural and economic community development, rather than waiting for others to make changes for them.
Over the past two decades, First Nations communities in Canada have been focusing on The First Mile – developing their own communications infrastructure that puts local community needs first and ahead of the needs of private sector telecommunication corporations. Rob McMahon, Susan O’Donnell, Tim Whiteduck and others have used the First Mile concept to refer to and prioritise community-led solutions, such as locally owned and managed telecommunication structures and networks.
These communities are creating internet infrastructure which suits their own needs and enables their voices to be heard beyond their community through a medium which they have created themselves.
At the end of the day, whenever we hear that anything less than 100% of a population or a group are online for any particular purpose, we should not only celebrate the increased percentage whose voices have a chance to be heard by those who most value digital communication. We must also turn the figure around to remember why we all need to go that Extra Mile – to makes changes so that everyone’s voice can be heard in the digital age. And that might not always be through digital or online media.
Lareen Newman PhD is the Grant Developer for the Division of Education Arts & Social Sciences at the University of South Australia. Her research over the past ten years has focused on inequities in consumer access to services, in particular internet and mobile phone use, and what this means for access to the social determinants of health equity. On Twitter @LareenNewman and Homepage: http://people.unisa.edu.au/Lareen.Newman
Mike Gurstein PhD is Executive Director of the Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development & Training (CCIRDT) in Vancouver, Canada and an Adjunct Professor in the Information School at the University of British Columbia. He is often acknowledged as the “Father of Community Informatics”, the academic discipline concerned with the community and grassroots use of ICTs. He was responsible for the first community-based institute concerned with the use of ICTs for economic and social development and works extensively with indigenous peoples in remote and rural parts of Canada and internationally. On Twitter @michaelgurstein and Homepage: https://gurstein.wordpress.com/
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