Technological Inequality

Introduction:

Technology is the application of scientific knowledge or discoveries to practical, and often industrial, needs of modern human life.1 In recent decades, technology has played increasingly important roles in the everyday lives of humans – whether through the advancements in mobile phones and the internet, or the life-saving medical technologies in use today – almost every aspect of people’s lives now involve some form of technology. The global demand for technology is subsequently constantly increasing as the years progress – in the year 2000 there were only around 413 million internet users compared to the over 4 billion internet users as of April 2022.2, 3 More people are using advanced technology now than at any other point in human history, however, this isn’t the case everywhere as there are vast technological disparities between different regions across the world.

Technological inequality broadly refers to both the differences in access to technology between different areas and to the impacts that technology can have on the inequalities faced in people’s lives and the wider economy of that country.

One of the most widespread forms of technological inequality is known as the digital divide another term referring to the gap between different demographics or geographical regions that have access to modern ICT (information and communications technology) compared to those that have limited to no access.4 Whilst in the past this term was used in reference to telephone access it now encompasses television, computer, and internet access alongside the ability to use that technology effectively.5 

Causes:

The digital divide has been present since the mid-20th century when it was most widely used to refer to the differences in telephone access across the population. As technology has progressed further through the late 20th century and early 21st century, the digital divide has widened throughout society to encompass internet access and broadband. It spans beyond international borders and between different demographics within the same country as well. 

One of the major causes of the digital divide is a lack of resources present in certain geographical areas. Across countries all around the world, there is often a lack of infrastructure and investment in rural communities compared to urban areas which leads to a much lower proportion of the community being able to access and use technology. This can often be due to private companies and organizations deeming certain areas as not profitable enough to include in their power and internet networks, meaning that the people in these areas won’t have the technological luxuries available to them that those in more densely populated and developed areas will.5 This means that even if citizens of these countries have access to internet-enabled devices, they may still not be able to use the internet due to the poor infrastructure, which again widens the digital divide between more and less developed regions.

Another factor that contributes to the digital divide is a lack of education surrounding the use of modern technologies such as the internet. This is known as the use divide and refers to the differences in the knowledge and skills that certain people possess which allow them to use important technologies like the internet. The divide is further highlighted across generations as older generations typically tend to lack the skills necessary to make the most out of these technologies when compared to the younger generations who have had more education to build up these skills.5 

Finances also play a key role in the digital divide as well. Citizens who find themselves on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale in society also tend to have less money available to buy themselves products such as mobile phones and broadband.5 This inability to afford devices that are necessary to get onto the internet is more prominent in developing countries as the disposable income of its citizens (how much of their income can be used to buy non-essentials) is usually lower than citizens in more developed countries. This, combined with the lower rates of education and skills relating to technology in developing countries means that people in these countries won’t typically be able to access the same opportunities as they would in developed nations.

Effects:

The lack of technological infrastructure within many developing nations can have negative effects on its citizen’s ability to access and use modern technologies. These effects can be especially prevalent in when looking at the differences between rural and urban areas within the same country. For example, in the United States of America, approximately 5 million rural homes in 2019 still cannot access broadband internet4 (this is around 73.6% of the rural population compared to 93.5% of the wider population in the USA).9 On a global scale, citizens living in more developed urban areas have nearly double the rate of internet access at home when compared to rural homes.13 This can impact someone’s ability to access knowledge, share information, or even access basic services. In Palestine, for example, the internet usage of its population is as low as 1.5% compared to 98% of the population in the UK. 

The use divide is seen most widely among people with a lack of education regarding technology and the internet as they don’t have the necessary skills or knowledge to utilize these services. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the use divide played a large part in leading to certain students receiving a lower level of education when learning from home. In the UK, 22% of the population lacks basic digital skills, such as using a spreadsheet, to effectively carry out their work from home.10 This lack of education and ability to use technology leads to ‘digital exclusion’ where people can miss out on vital opportunities and fall behind others in terms of their education, work, and social life. Those more vulnerable to COVID-19 also tended to be older, so were more likely to lack the skills needed to book vaccination appointments or keep up to date with the latest guidance, showing how the use divide can stretch beyond everyday life and even affect people’s health and wellbeing.

People who find themselves at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale in society will find it harder to purchase devices and services needed to access and use technology and the internet. This is seen more within the populations of developing countries where people are less likely to have high-income jobs that pay enough money to buy the latest technology. The graph below illustrates the divide in broadband subscriptions between high-income and low-income countries across Asia, showing how the least wealthy countries have the lowest rate of broadband subscriptions and therefore reduced access to services such as Wi-Fi and the internet.

Internet penetration rate is a measure that looks into the percentage of a population in a certain country or region that uses the internet, compared to just looking at the total number of internet users.11 This allows us to have a deeper understanding of people’s access to the internet in a country that might have a high amount of people using the internet but when compared to its total population it may not actually be so widely used. The graph below shows the different internet penetration rates of seven different regions across the world from 1990 to 2020. It shows that internet penetration rates in wealthier areas with more developed countries such as North America, Europe, and Central Asia have some of the highest rates of internet usage throughout their population at around 80% – 90%. This contrasts greatly with the less wealthy areas that contain more developing countries such as South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa which have less than 50% of their total populations using the internet regularly during 2020. 

Whilst the most immediate effects of low internet penetration rates could be on an individual basis with decreased access to basic services and missing out on opportunities for work etc, the effects can also be seen on a national and global scale. Less wealthy countries with more limited access to the internet can also suffer lower productivity, slower economic growth, and a decreased presence on the world stage to collaborate with other countries.8 

One other important factor that can impact a country’s economy and development is the use of automation and artificial intelligence in industry. Wealthier countries are now able to introduce automation in workplaces such as factories which can greatly increase productivity and efficiency, consequently leading to a growing economy. Countries with a lack of AI and automation implementation, therefore, tend to fall beyond in terms of innovation and productivity as they can struggle to keep up with other nations.8

Solutions:

Improving technological and ICT infrastructure is a process that needs to be largely led by government bodies instead of private organizations, as they have access to the resources and finances required for widespread change. Recently, in 2021, the USA introduced the new Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provided $65 billion to implement low-cost, affordable high-speed internet in rural American towns and cities. Similarly, the Rural Electrification Act during the Great Depression helped to promote the electrification of more remote, rural areas in the USA alongside telecommunications networks and internet services for many years to follow.5 These are a few examples of how technology infrastructure can be organized and developed effectively by the government to underrepresented areas in terms of ICT services, where private companies may not be so willing to put in the work if there aren’t any immediate routes to gaining large profits. This infrastructure can ensure as many people as possible in the population have access to essential products and services and it is vital certain countries don’t get ‘left behind’ as more advanced countries develop at a rapid pace.8

There are numerous programs that have been put in place in order to try and alleviate the digital divide. The Alliance for Affordable Internet aims to lower broadband costs globally to make it easier to access the internet in certain areas. The initiative One Laptop Per Child aims to supply low-cost laptops and other educational devices to children around the world while also providing programs to teach them essential digital skills to help bridge the skill divide. The for-profit group Starlink, run by SpaceX, has been working to offer affordable access to high-speed internet to over 40 countries through an array of dedicated space satellites since 2019.5 The combination of these initiatives and programs can help to improve the digital divide within a country’s population and on a wider scale across the world by making sure that people have access and the resources they need to excel with technology.

When thinking about the rise of artificial intelligence in recent years seen in highly developed nations, industries need to remain cautious when implementing automation into their workforce. If it becomes ubiquitous in our everyday lives, the jobs of working-class people could be some of the first to go – requiring the least skill and often being repetitive in nature.

When looking at tackling the issue on a global scale, it is important that we raise awareness of the technological inequality ordinary people are facing around the world. There are already numerous organizations that have worked to inform others about these issues. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 9, for example, is encouraging countries to employ a coordinated response to end digital discrimination.5 The United Nations has also started numerous other initiatives such as World Information Society Day and the Information and Communication Technologies Task Force which all aim to bridge the current digital divide and bring all citizens of the world to the same technological level.4 In addition to raising awareness about these issues, it is also important to improve the education surrounding technology. In doing this, citizens on a personal, national, and global level will gain the operational, informational, and strategic skills needed to excel in using technology to better themselves – ensuring they can access the best opportunities available to them.6

References:

  1. Adam Augustyn. “Technology”  https://www.britannica.com/technology/technology
  2. Max Roser, Hannah Ritchie, and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina. (2015) “Internet” https://ourworldindata.org/internet#:~:text=Globally%2C%20the%20number%20of%20Internet,online%20for%20the%20first%20time.
  3. https://ourworldindata.org/internet#:~:text=Globally%2C%20the%20number%20of%20Internet,online%20for%20the%20first%20time.
  4. Katie Terrell Hanna. (2021) “Digital Divide”  https://www.techtarget.com/whatis/definition/digital-divide#:~:text=The%20digital%20divide%20typically%20exists,and%20less%20industrially%20developing%20countries.
  5. Kiara Taylor. (2022) “The Digital Divide: What It Is, and What’s Being Done To Close It” https://www.investopedia.com/the-digital-divide-5116352
  6. https://thegreatdigitaldivideproject.weebly.com/reasons-for-digital-divide.html
  7. Adi Gaskell. (2019) “Technology Isn’t Destroying Jobs, But Is Increasing Inequality” https://www.forbes.com/sites/adigaskell/2019/05/03/technology-isnt-destroying-jobs-but-is-increasing-inequality/?sh=609acf595e78
  8. United Nations ESCAP. (2018) “Technology and Inequalities” (Chapter 4)  https://www.unescap.org/sites/default/files/06Chapter4.pdf
  9. Daniel Wilmoth. (2019) “Accessing the Internet in Rural America” https://cdn.advocacy.sba.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/07105617/Rural-Internet-Accesss.pdf
  10. University of Cambridge. (2022) “Pay the wi-fi or feed the children: Coronavirus has intensified the UK’s digital divide” https://www.cam.ac.uk/stories/digitaldivide
  11. https://www.igi-global.com/dictionary/internet-penetration-rate/15439
  12. Claire Spoors. (2019) “Technology and Inequality” https://views-voices.oxfam.org.uk/2019/08/technology-and-inequality/
  13. International Telecommunications Union. (2021) “Measuring Digital Development: Facts and Figures” https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Documents/facts/FactsFigures2021.pdf     Page 6
  14. Alliance for Affordable Internet. (2021) “Affordability Report 2020” https://www.bls.gov/opub/btn/volume-10/why-computer-occupations-are-behind-strong-stem-employment-growth.htm 
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