Digital poverty is not about a lack of technological workplace skills for the future; it is about the inability, for a wide variety of reasons, to interact fully with the digital world. Meanwhile, digital capital is the foundation of our ability to engage fully with the digital world.
It consists of the assets that enable our digital interactions: enough knowledge and training to use appropriate technology, and to handle future changes in it; satisfaction and confidence that it is secure and safe; cash to fund it; space and time to use it; family and peer support to allow it to form part of our lives; and, finally, local infrastructure to support it.
The importance of both digital poverty and capital is clear: with the world increasingly digitally enabled in so many ways, those who are unable to work within the digital world are excluded from it by that inability.
A significant number of people in the UK are unable to properly play a full part in society because of a lack of digital capital, with 16% of people unable to use the internet and their own device by themselves UK government data from 2020 reports that 100% (presumably within a statistical range) of households with children under the age of 16 have internet connectivity but overall that data is extremely coarse.
For example, internet access, in this context, includes access through a mobile phone, and the data does not cover - nor does it claim to - ability of users to use technology effectively. The Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index 2020 is much more fine-grained and suggests that ‘3.6 million people (7%) are almost completely offline’.
The COVID-19 pandemic has obviously highlighted a new potential feature of internet connectivity: track and trace mobile phone apps have the potential to connect properly equipped people to an infrastructure enabling contact and virus tracing.
Ignoring for the moment the effectiveness and political ramifications of such a thing, it is one of the many ways that the crisis has raised the issue of digital connectivity: those without proper physical devices will be unable to benefit others by taking part.
But even if track and trace is a relatively narrow example of digital engagement: what about proper access to news and cheaper online banking, delivery of food or similar? What about the ability to consume and evaluate internet news, or to identify ‘fake news’?
What about distance learning - the importance of which has been even greater visibility during the pandemic - or public transport information and other travel services? The list could go on and includes access to those things that mitigate social isolation, so important considering the context of lockdown?
On top of all of these, there are more obvious economic factors: those without full access to the digital world are less able to work efficiently, both in their day-to-day lives and in the workplace, and overall have less access to the full world of work in general.
The Lloyds data also covers the less obvious benefits of digital connectivity that the pandemic has exposed: ‘87% say it helps them to connect better with friends and family’, and ‘55% say it makes them feel more part of a community’.
Our society should feel some significant shame that we have denied people the proper tools and training to form such valuable emotional connections. And it is not as if we were not warned or could not see this coming.
Bridging the gap
A 2019 report commissioned by the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, No Longer Optional: Employer Demand for Digital Skills, aims to ‘help inform the development of evidence-based digital skills policy’. One conclusion is that ‘acquiring specific digital skills makes career progression as well as a pay increase more likely’.
It is difficult to see how our society can progress into a prosperous, fair future unless we ensure that all members of it have the basic digital capital to allow them to acquire such specific skills and compete for progression on the same basis as their peers.
Some people will not realise that they are missing out and, according to the Lloyds data, over a third of those offline say the internet does not interest them. Given the myriad advantages of digital engagement and the barriers exclusion is increasingly creating, the needs of these ‘unaware participants’ should not be ignored.
One might reasonably assume that in terms of research, the players in this area are government, digital technology providers and professional bodies. But while government does record some data in this area, it is the private sector that fills in the details, with Lloyds data in particular giving significantly more information that the ONS. While perhaps not based entirely on altruism, it would take a very cynical mind to imagine that this data was gathered for entirely mercenary motives.
Likewise, it might be cynical to suggest that government could have a political motivation in not enabling its whole population; reasoning aside, it is clear that one cannot rely solely on government to either identify or address the issues here. Equally, there is a gap that could be filled by professional bodies in the digital arena. But provision of kit is not the answer, although it would be foolish to attempt analysis here without involving professional and industrial organisations with technical expertise.
However, there are other aspects to this whole picture that are non-technical: how does cash poverty interact with digital poverty? What social demographics are affected? What is the wider economic impact of potential solutions? What digital world benefits have we not considered?
This cross-disciplinary need highlights a role for a thought-leading coordinating body: the RSA is well placed to fill this gap by linking professional bodies in specific domains with public-sector partners to initiate regional programmes that offer solutions. While there are a wide variety of partners already working in this area, the RSA could provide that missing link and add considerable value to this area.
I am currently building a cross-sector partnership in the West of England Combined Authority region involving industry, regional government and the education sector to identify and address the issue. I am keen on hearing from other Fellows already involved in this area, or keen on becoming involved.