The Digital Divide and The Perfect Inequality Storm
Many blamed digital technologies in the past for separating us from each other; today everyone recognizes them as the tool keeping us together. But is that true for everyone? What of those without access to high speed internet?
by Concepción Galdón, Director of IE Center for Social Innovation, Lead of IE Sustainable Impact Teaching & Research.
The struggle against Covid-19 has confined close to three billion people around the world in our homes as we speak. Children cannot go to school, nor can their parents go to work. Senior people who live alone cannot receive visits from their families. However, thanks to the internet, the school can go to the children and adults can continue to work online.
LinkedIn is packed these days of articles about the glories of teleworking. According to the authors, one of the main changes that this crisis will bring about is a normalization of remote working and, thus, an improvement of work-life balance.
Besides, children are becoming ever more acquainted with new technologies. Thanks to video conferencing, they can “visit” their grandparents and keep them company. Many blamed digital technologies in the past for separating us from each other; today everyone recognizes them as the tool keeping us together. Thanks to the internet, our lives keep moving on even in these most challenging circumstances. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to high-speed internet nor can everyone do his or her job online.
But not everyone
In 2018 almost 95% of the population in the UK used the internet, according to World Bank Data. During the same year, in Peru, only 55% of the population used the internet, and barely 14% did so in Zambia. The digital divide between rich and developing countries limits the ability of poorer countries to take advantage of technology-based opportunities as they confront the crisis, exacerbating inequality between nations.
Now, let us consider the analysis within countries. Because the numbers previously mentioned are averages and, following the paradigmatic example, if I eat a whole chicken and you eat none, the average will not reflect your situation and mine very well. Taking Spain as an example, we see that our national internet use average is 90%, as of the end of 2019. This means that today 10% of the Spanish population is in almost absolute isolation. To make things worse, this 10% is not distributed randomly among the population but, just like in the case of countries, it is higher among more vulnerable groups.
According to EU data, while 99% of the Spanish population between 16 and 24 use the internet, only 63% of the population older than 65 does. Forty-seven percent of Spanish seniors are not receiving video calls from family members nor can they access critical services online.
Added to the digital divide
The literature has consistently found a correlation between technology use (i.e., internet access, computer ownership) and income. Richer families have more access to technology and, thus, can work remotely and their children can access education remotely, more prevalently than poorer families. Moreover, better paying liberal professionals’ jobs adapt better to remote working than lower-skilled jobs do. Thus, people who are already making more money are more likely to keep their jobs during confinement while people who are making less money are more likely to lose their jobs.
Taking it to the micro-level, a lawyer whose children attend a private school will probably today be working remotely while her children are studying, each from their personal computer. A hairdresser whose children attend a public school will probably today be unemployed while his children may or may not have one computer for the whole family, which they share.
Confinement added to the digital divide, and pre-existing socio-economic dynamics create a perfect storm to exacerbate inequality. As we become so fond of teleworking and remote education, let us not forget the millions of people for whom neither is an option. Guaranteeing high-speed internet access for all and investing in innovations that grant access to technology to those more vulnerable might be today the single most important thing to do to guarantee that the future of the children that are confined today is just as bright as it should have always been.