We live in a world where almost everyone is online. The internet is a near-endless source of information, a space where we keep in contact with loved ones and where we work and consume. But what if you do not have access to the internet, because of a lack of motivation, skills, or don’t have a computer? Digital inequality increases the social gap between people and can even lead to exclusion. Alexander van Deursen, professor of communication science at the University of Twente, is investigating how digital inequality arises and how we can combat it.
Author: Roel van der Heijden (original article published here)
Kim uses the internet as a limitless glossy magazine, where she can find answers to all her questions about health and relationships. That makes her feel more confident. Willem spends several hours daily on YouTube and Facebook, where he feels heard by like-minded people. He can deal with his frustrations that way. Amina has a tablet that her children can use to look up information. That way, they keep up at school and learn faster.
However, with everything she is reading, Kim is also permanently searching for the proper diet, which she cannot find. Willem has started believing in conspiracy theories and becoming increasingly entangled in his own delusions. During the coronavirus crisis, one tablet proved to be not enough for Amina’s three children. Her children have now fallen behind at school.
New technology can have positive as well as negative effects. How do you prevent the negative aspects from gaining the upper hand? Also, how do you avoid the negative elements mainly affect a particular group of people in society? The examples above are taken from the inaugural lecture Alexander van Deursen gave. He holds the chair of ‘Digital Inequality’.
The examples illustrate the far-reaching consequences of digitalisation. Mastering digital skills is now an essential part of our daily lives. That includes more than just the basic skills of operating a computer. It is just as crucial that people use technology responsibly, and that they can sense the pitfalls. Professor Van Deursen’s research is focused on the causes and consequences of digital inequality, which often result from an individual’s position in society and the resources they have access to. The level of education, income, health, degree of literacy or social network are examples of determining and recursive factors.
The range and depth of digital possibilities are increasing rapidly. To demonstrate this, Van Deursen had ChatGPT, an advanced language model that uses artificial intelligence to generate fluent text on demand, write an inaugural lecture for him. The result was excellent, he says. Although such new technologies offer many opportunities, an increasingly small group of people are positioned to reap the benefits. “The disadvantaged members of society benefit relatively less from these developments, and at the same time, they are also the ones who are more likely to be affected by negative experiences.”
The disadvantaged members of society benefit relatively less from these developments, and at the same time, they are also the ones who are more likely to be affected by negative experiences.
Alexander van Deursen
In his inaugural lecture, he gives a few examples of digital pitfalls, including algorithmic sorting (which lay at the base of the Dutch childcare allowance scandal), dubious crediting systems, echo chambers on social media, violations of privacy, but also social media addiction, problems with attention span and personality disorders. “The risks are genuine, and the dangers are growing. Legislation to overcome the negative aspects of technology generally fall behind.”.
Digitalisation continues to creep further into our lives through the devices we use at home, at work and on the go. We have smart thermostats, wearables, televisions, ovens, and even baby socks. The complex Internet of Things system is rapidly developing. It is intended to make life easier, more sustainable or safer for all of us, and should help us make the right decisions, for example in health or sustainability. “However, our research indicates that the system does not improve decision-making amongst many people,” Van Deursen says. “People find it difficult to assess a decision made by a system. Using smart devices often does not result in sustainable behaviour, despite that being the intention.”
Digitalisation is usually seen as a good thing for everyone. However, the negative effects could also outweigh the positive outcomes. "the ‘digital inclusion paradox," said Alexander van Deursen.
How do we resolve this? Van Deursen says that digital inequality is receiving increased attention, and that it is high on the political agenda. “Many initiatives focus on getting people online, from organising courses to handing out laptops. The idea is then that things will be fine when people can handle the technology. But critical use is increasingly important. For example, understanding that you should not share your information with just anyone, or that not all news online is real. In that sense, it is not only important to promote the positive effects, but also to avoid the negative consequences of technology."
Making people ‘digitally resilient’ should start in school, preferably as early as possible. According to Van Deursen, adults should also be offered training through courses or classes in community centres or libraries, for example.
Responsibility for our digital inclusion lies with the government, but also – and explicitly – with the producers of the technology, says Van Deursen. Take the terms and conditions we are forced to digest to use certain devices or services, for example. “Many people find it impossible to wade through and understand thirty-six pages of ‘legalese’. We usually accept this out of necessity. Given the increasing amount of personal data collected, however, we need to understand what happens with that information and who can access it. This is crucial for our privacy, security and freedom. In that sense, understanding terms and conditions should be a given.
Professor Alexander van Deursen holds the ‘Digital Inequality’ chair in the communication science department at the Faculty of Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences of the University of Twente. He is the founder and director of the Centre for Digital Inclusion at the same faculty. He held his inaugural lecture entitled ‘The digital inclusion paradox’ on 13 April 2023.