Digital technologies are quickly becoming an everyday necessity. What can we do to bridge this gap of inequality and establish digital technology as a right for all?
By Amanda Roark
Daily life in the United States of America has gone through a distinct change in a few short months. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many families to adapt to digital forms of work, education, and socialisation. Some families have made these digital shifts with relative ease, but others have struggled, calling attention to the increasing digital inequality in our society. With thousands of Americans isolating across the country and digital spaces becoming essential, the coronavirus pandemic has created a unique opportunity to address the right to technological access for all and what that means moving forward.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of our lives in some way or another. Service industry employees have been using facemasks, physical distancing, and contactless techniques to varying degrees of success. Many white-collar workers discovered they could, for the most part, do their jobs remotely. Some continue to stay home while others have returned to the office, at least in some limited capacity. Many children have been sent back to school while others try distance learning through the home computer. Weekend trips, parties, sporting events and almost all forms of physical interaction and socialising have either drastically decreased or flat-out stopped. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we have sought digital manifestations for work, education, and socialisation with greater zeal than ever before.Access to technologies such as computers or the internet is quickly switching from a convenience to a necessity.
Unfortunately, the current pandemic has only exacerbated the gap in access to technology while highlighting its significance in our day-to-day lives. This digital inequality is just another form of social inequality that has become inescapable as technology advances over time. Put another way: the digital inequities worsened by the coronavirus outbreak have disproportionately affected those of lower socioeconomic standing.
The convenience at which one accesses technology can vary greatly depending upon one’s employment, education, and income. Many people rely on public spaces to access the internet and personal computers. Places like schools, libraries, coffee shops, and senior centres are vital, yet prone to closure or decreased seating capacity as the pandemic makes these spaces harder to comfortably access.
The ongoing pandemic and resulting lockdowns have only compounded the effects of digital inequality. For instance, some families have difficulty using one home computer simultaneously for all their different needs. While some children have a home office with a reliable PC for distance learning, disadvantaged children use their parents’ phone or a cheap laptop at best. Digital technologies are quickly becoming an everyday necessity. What can we do to bridge this gap of inequality and establish digital technology as a right for all?
Digital inequality is not defined solely by physical access to technology; the concept of “digital literacy” must also be taken into account. The heart of digital literacy is essentially just benefiting from the resources that digital technologies like computers, cell phones, and the internet provide. This may seem simple enough, but two paramount conditions must be met. First, people must have the comprehension, ability, and incentive to properly obtain the information they seek. Second, they must grasp, manage, and absorb the information they have found.
Nowadays, there is so much data one must parse through when seeking out information on the internet. The presence of both relevant and useless information intermingled together across pages of search results has affected our ability to inform and educate ourselves responsibly. For instance, YouTube videos are often favoured over schematics or dedicated forums when attempting home repairs. Another example is how people often use quotes from social media and other untrustworthy news sources to confirm their biases. Many would appreciate access to better, more reputable information, but lack the rudimentary knowledge on how to manipulate search engines to their advantage. If the closest thing to a peer review is a Facebook comment section, chances are that digital literacy needs improvement.
Like any worthwhile task, bridging the digital inequality gap will not be an easy goal to achieve. The first step will arguably be the most difficult because it requires government assistance. As we all know, even the smallest of governmental shifts require tenacious action from countless passionate citizens. If we can get the world’s governments to recognise access to technology as a fundamental human right, we can begin to build a “tech for all” mentality across the globe.
From there, government agencies can help to increase physical access to digital technologies and the internet. Governmental task forces can work in tandem with telecommunications companies to increase the coverage and speed of internet networks to neighbourhoods with lower socioeconomic standing. Local officials could keep spaces that offer internet access open to the public, even if limited to a reduced capacity with proper sanitation guidelines in light of the pandemic. Most importantly, we could allocate funds to help low-income families acquire connected devices. Charities could accept and distribute older yet functional tech donations for disadvantaged families. Access to technology is no longer a computer in every classroom; it’s a laptop for every child.
Increasing digital literacy is another crucial challenge we need to overcome in a “tech for all” society. If the first step towards attaining digital literacy is the primary ability to use the technology properly, then it makes logical sense to start there. Fortunately, many people can acquire a new device and quickly work the essential functions and understand the basics of what the device can do. Still, older generations are often uncomfortable and struggle when dealing with digital technologies. A “tech for all” society would encourage these people to go outside their comfort zones to learn something new and beneficial to their everyday lives. Social distancing must be considered in the short term (especially for the elderly) while the country continues its fight against COVID-19. That can be as simple as volunteers helping the digitally disadvantaged through the phone. Non-profits and schools could fund programmes that teach digital competency through online lessons and tutorials which are free of charge. One could even utilise screen-sharing softwares to have remote one-on-one learning sessions with those who want to improve their limited skills. These services could even expand to the social sphere, keeping families and friends spread out in isolation while still being interpersonally connected.
In general, the world is slowly coming around to the realisation that we must shift to a “tech for all” mindset to combat growing digital inequalities. Although these inequalities have existed for some time, the broad differences in access to digital technology have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Overcoming this imbalance will require more than just changes in the way we view technology as a right. It will require the action and collaboration of many people to make an impact. These measures can take on multiple manifestations like expanding internet services to poor communities, getting devices in the hands of disadvantaged peoples, and creating means for socialisation through connected devices. It may be a long road ahead, but any battle against inequity is a worthwhile fight.