There is nothing inherently divisive in digital devices. As with steam in the first, so digital systems in the fourth industrial revolution are the power that drives the machinery of this new economy. However, as with steam-enabled productivity, an increasing commercial exploitation of digital capacity is generating new inequalities and widening existing social fissures. The COVID pandemic has, as with much else, exacerbated existing trends, both increasing our reliance on digital structures, and emphasizing the disparity across the world, and within individual administrations.
Technology as a source of new inequalities
Material assets are the simplest to measure. Within developed economies the possession of a computer and a smart phone is assumed. Not to have such basic equipment is to be put at a disadvantage. For example, during the pandemic, across wealthy administrations ‘test and trace’, and access to vaccines have been digitally driven. In Asia digital methods were developed successfully to combat the SARS outbreak. Based on these, South Korea, Singapore, France, Germany, the US and the UK were quick to develop COVID tracking systems. In Indonesia and China further links are being made between the test and trace app and other platforms – though, to be fair, data breaches are threatening these systems.
The health issue has simply confirmed a process whereby digital arrangements, dependent on possessing a computer or smart phone, have come to form a vital part of working, travelling, shopping, catering, socializing, dating, even ordering a taxi. For the most prosperous the internet of things is reshaping how we manage our homes, security, and machine-based learning. Under normal conditions a lack of digital access created inconvenience rather than exclusion, but the pandemic has changed that, especially for health and education. At times of lockdown, when all learning went online, great inequalities opened up between children with a computer in their bedroom, or those sharing a mobile, and, at the extreme, those without any means of accessing the internet. In the developed world those without access to the web are increasingly excluded from day-to-day transactions.
A matter of energy and space
Even for those who have access to digital devices, connection to the internet varies across the globe. It remains the case that half the world’s population has no access to the internet, predominantly in poorer nations and remote regions. Some of this is explained by a variable supply of electricity. South Sudan is bottom of the list, with only 7% of the population having electricity. Even where access is more general it is often rationed, time limited or unreliable. Fortunately, batteries and solar power are being developed to provide a supply, or cushion a power cut, but the inequalities remain very real.
A material requirement often neglected is that of space. This is an issue both poor and more affluent communities. COVID caused a mass movement to working from home, and the indications are that much of this change in working lives will remain, as employees enjoy reduced commuting and employers cut office costs. For some this begs the question, whose home is it? Affluent families with multiple roomed houses may take full advantage, but for those with limited accommodation, perhaps raising young children, the conflict over space can become serious.
Internet can be a dangerous place
Beyond the material, there are major issues around skills, training, and cultural barriers. This has been the focus of debate within international agencies such as UNESCO, OECD and the G20. Issues are not simply around possessing, or having access to, the expertise necessary to establish and maintain internet connectivity. There are concerns, for example, about cultural barriers to women being given training and skills, thus reinforcing existing inequalities. Without proper training the internet rapidly becomes a dangerous place, and in the case of the dark web a shadowy world of extreme criminality. The Future of Education and Skills 2030 (OECD, 2018) cautions that over the last few years, there has been international concern around abuses such as data manipulation, sophisticated AI algorithms and unreliable machine learning. The Internet Is full of predators who collect private data for commercial gain, such as high-pressure advertising, who start misinformation campaigns - fake news, who seek to defraud the unwary, to harass and to corrupt.
The role of the G20 and of the EU
Abuse of the Internet, by individual manipulators and commercial platforms has become so common, so economically damaging, even criminal, that protocols must be put in place to curb this exploitation of the weak and vulnerable. The worldwide nature of the web means that individual operators and large platforms can relocate on a whim. Local rules and practices are therefore of limited value, and hence, as any constraints must be, ultimately, global to be effective, hence the interest of international, global agencies. The T20 Communiqué of 2020, In advising the G20 states that
1. The need to work together, globally, is greater than ever and
2. Coordinated action must embrace structural reform
It urges the G20 to oversee this process.
Perhaps the most important development recently has been the European Union Digital Services Act (DSA) of 20 January 2022. As with the existing General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) the EU collectively packs sufficient economic punch to have a significant impact on the global platforms and, perhaps, lead the way in setting global standards. The main impact of the DSA will be the banning or limiting of advertising based on profiling. It also provides for transparency for consumers as to who is collecting information on them and what they are collecting. Its impact will be primarily on the large, highly visible social media and retail platforms, and will not impact on all abuse of the internet, but it is a significant move, and charts the way towards enhanced governance of the web. Meanwhile moves are afoot to strengthen global governance, as can be found in contributions to the G20 debate. Dennis Snower and Paul Twomey are two leading thinkers in this field and their call for humanistic digital governance is proving highly influential with both the G20 and the G7.
While digital security is improving, digital exclusion remains of major concern. Two processes indicate that progress may be possible in the medium term. Firstly, administrations are beginning to appreciate that digital infrastructures are as important as, say, roads or airports. Access to electricity and to the web is vital economically. Non-governmental agencies are influential here, emphasizing the importance of connectivity. Secondly the comparative cost of simple, non-complex computers and phones is coming down, especially as there is now a greater emphasis on recycling unwanted devices.
Access to necessary skills remains a problem. In part this is a financial issue, with, for many, restricted access to schools. Priorities could be readjusted, with digital skills being given higher priority within even a limited curriculum. However, it remains a significant cultural issue, with unnecessary barriers being retained for religious or historical reasons. This may be a stubborn area to work in and where, as we seek to build back better, perhaps greater effort should be made by the global community.