Why do digital inequalities persist?
Shifting the focus of the Digital Divide Debate
Twentieth century developments in computing and the internet were heralded as essential to the social and economic progress of nation states. Academic researchers thought ICT would be transformative, envisioning that a shift to a ‘knowledge economy’ would bring social and economic equality in the 21st century (Castells, 1996, Castells, 1997, Castells, 1998, Reich, 1991). Digital technologies were portrayed as empowering individuals (D’Allesandro and Dosa, 2001) by democratising information enabling all to participate (Katz et al., 2001) and flourish in an information-based society. Governments in developed countries invested heavily in technological infrastructure and private sector development viewing digital technologies as essential for society and the economy.
Nevertheless, by the early 2000s this technological determinism was countered by concern about the growing inequalities of access causing a 'digital divide', and after 25 years such problems remain unresolved (Robinson et al., 2020).
Many researchers have wrestled with issues of internet access (Martin and Robinson 2004), and variation in children’s digital skills (Livingstone 2002, 2003) hoping to counter the inequalities in children’s internet use through education (Livingstone and Helsper, 2007; Meneses and. Mominó 2010). Further, other research has claimed that existing inequalities can be perpetuated by education systems as they value higher technology-related capital accrued by students from middle class families (Apps, 2019). Policies have since the mid-90s focused on the provision of internet connections and devices, and integrating digital technologies within schools. Covid-19 has reignited fresh concerns by governments, academics, ICT industries and non-profit organisations which echo the early dichotomous notion of the digital divide as characterised by the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ (Wresch, 1996). Such pragmatic approaches assume digital skill and literacy education will generate competent digital citizens. However, ‘digital inclusion’ is not merely about the affordability of internet connections and digital devices.
Despite such provisions, recent research suggests that children’s technology practices are underpinned by their ‘dispositions or inclinations toward technology’ offering a new line of inquiry into inequalities of use. Such dispositions influence their perceptions of technology, how they engage with technology, and perceive opportunities through technology (Apps et al., 2019: 414).
While issues of access and digital skill are important and can be resolved through pragmatic means, this research seeks to understanding family digital cultures and their influence on children’s digital engagement and argues this research to be a necessary adjunct to research efforts hoping to improve digital inclusion. With persistent problems of a digital divide, a new approach is needed to understand diverse digital outcomes. Rather than researching the success of digital education this research explores the role of families in shaping individual disposition or inclination toward digital technology, and how this shapes digital inclusion outcomes.
Answers as to the persistent problems of digital exclusion are even more urgent considering the ‘new normal’ of Covid-19 in which households are now required to manage social distancing, to work and attend school from home, and access essential services online. This research seeks insights into how can might evaluate the digital dispositions of families, and identify those who will struggle to become part of the digital society allowing for more tailored intervention.