Towards a new era with no digital exclusions

The usual factors of inequality that have always existed (social class, age, gender, education, environment) determine not only access, but also the capacity to develop fully in the digital world. Teleworking, automation, digital participation and security are at the source of new digital divides. In addition to putting an end to them, the challenge for the future will be to tackle digital disconnection, digital detox, and interacting with humans instead of machines.

One in every two individuals in Spain admit not being able to live without the internet… Does that seem like a lot or very few? Spain’s residents spend more than six hours a day online. It’s so easy for us to be literally hooked up. Eighty per cent of families have a computer; 99.5% (almost all of them!) of households have a mobile phone; 95.9% have a fixed or mobile connection.[1] The numbers give a sense of normalcy, but what about the decimal points, the fraction that completes the percentage to include us all? It is there, in that space, where digital divides open up. Beneath those gaps, which are invisible and almost imperceptible, are social realities that tip the scales off balance.

There are more than three billion people worldwide suffering from digital inequality. In countries like ours, it can no longer be said that someone “is connected” solely because they have internet access. Other factors come into play, so the internet alone cannot explain the digital divide. To talk about connection, we have to consider other aspects, improve the analysis, fine-tune the details… Look through the cracks.

We have lived behind screens for more than two years, having been forced to do so on account of the pandemic. We have had to live this way to socialise, to study, to shop, to do exercise, to work. But not everyone has had the opportunity to do so, and that difference needs to be investigated. Those who could connect could adapt their routines to the digital mode, but many others survived in analogue mode. Did anyone notice all the socially excluded people as a result of their digital and technological deficiencies?

So we are beginning to understand that the digital experience is not the same for everyone, and that these digital and social disparities (lack of access to the internet, to a fixed or mobile connection and to electronic devices) assume the common patterns of inequality, the usual suspects: rich and poor, young and old, men and women, urban and rural. Digital-based discrimination towards vulnerable groups, minorities, etc., must not only be understood as a purely economic matter, but also as a psychosocial and political limitation and, in short, a restriction of rights.

The divides that are bridged: access, use and skills

We have always understood digitisation to be something related to access to technology. In the early days of the internet, a distant memory for almost all of us, what put us in or out of the digital society was whether or not we had a computer. Spain has made a huge effort in recent years to democratise access to digital infrastructure in all its forms, which is why the divide is almost non-existent in aggregate terms. However, in specific terms, we must continue to fight traditional sources of inequality, which affect people with lower incomes, less education, older in age and residents of rural areas, factors that limit them in almost every realm of life.

[1] Spanish National Society for Telecommunications and the Information Society. Ordenadores y hogares españoles 2022 [Computers and Spanish Households 2022]. Spanish Ministry for Economic Affairs and Digital Transformation, Madrid, 2022.

When internet access expanded to cover the biggest swathe of society, how internet was used and became what kept us in or out of the digital world began to matter. The digital divide hence started measuring who connected, for how long and for what purpose. By these calculations, we are a connected country in which more than 33 million people use the internet on a daily basis for almost everything. This trend (including the number of WhatsApp users, which in Spain exceeds 31 million) does not seem likely to change in the coming years, so new indicators will have to be proposed to understand the digital society.

Measuring the significant connection we seek to identify gaps is no easy feat. We are dealing with a cross-cutting issue, which can be analysed from any perspective: the economic, social, skills-based, educational, work, territorial and gender point of view. Over the last decade, the European Commission has begun to evaluate these dimensions using indicators in the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), which measures the digital performance of member states. In addition to the conventional dimensions concerning access and use of technologies are those related to human capital. And this is where we find the evolution of what used to be understood as the digital divide: who has the skills to develop fully in the digital economy?

This change of approach has helped tremendously to identify the digital skills of each social group and to confirm the small number of specialists in this field for years now (under 4%, which puts us below the European average). We know, for example, that there are few people pursuing technical studies and that only 20% are women. Competing in the digital job market will be hindered by this knowledge divide, which will be exacerbated by another shocking one, the gender gap.

We have been aware of these vulnerabilities for years and Spain has an ambitious plan to reduce them. The funds disbursed under the Next Generation European Union (NGEU) programme will support the rolling out of the Digital Spain strategy, financed through the Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan. One of its goals is the structural transformation of the economy with a clear focus on improving infrastructure, digital skills and territorial cohesion through connectivity.

We have a cross-cutting challenge ahead of us, as social inequality exists in the digital realm, whichever way we look at it. Ensuring nobody is disconnected at a time when much of our activity takes place online is a priority. The further we delve into exploring the gaps, the more likely we will be able to bridge them.

The gaps opening up: teleworking, automation, digital participation, security and gender

In the year 2020 we became acquainted with teleworking en masse. Spain has traditionally been a country that for different reasons has not incorporated this working arrangement and, nevertheless, the lockdowns meant record figures were hit. But the reality is that only one in three employed people has a job that gives them the option to work online. What’s more, not all professions can actually get the green light to do so. Nonetheless, we do know that society would like to be able to choose where it works. An overwhelming majority (almost 80%) have acknowledged that they would prefer to work remotely for four days or longer. And here we bring up common enemies again: people with more educational qualifications and income are the most likely to be allowed to work remotely. In short, telework is not for everyone. Neither because of the type of job done, nor because of the skills required, nor because of the territory in which one lives, nor because of the adaptation of the space to do so… There are people who simply cannot opt for teleworking, even if they want to.

Marital status or living with children are other determining factors that influence access to teleworking, which is an ideal place for inequality. Teleworking is more common among younger people, women and those with strong digital skills. And let’s not forget that teleworking calls for a good-quality connection, which is not always available.

It should also be borne in mind that not all jobs in the country’s productive framework have made or can make a digital transition. Some sectors are far from benefitting from one of the accelerators of the digitisation process, which affects a large number of work-related tasks: artificial intelligence and automation. The OECD estimates that 12% of jobs that only require primary (56%) and secondary (43%) education are at risk of automation. The lower the level of education and income, the more its benefits can be reaped. Having digital skills adapted to the professional setting is therefore especially important.[2]

Some recent studies associate the ratio between digital participation and the participatory gap.[3] The latter is defined as the set of inequalities generated by the uneven distribution of internet uses, where special attention must be paid to the gap in political participation. It can be said that standard inequalities are again palpable in digital participation (income, gender, age, etc.), but socially the negative consequences of the participatory gap are greater because they bear a direct impact on democracy.

[2] Velasco, L. “El año en el que nos creímos la digitalización” [The Year We Believed in Digitisation]. Economistas. Revista Colegio de Economistas de Madrid, 2022.

[3] Robles Morales, J. M., Antino, M., De Marco, S. and Lobera, J. A. “The New Frontier of Digital Inequality. The Participatory Divide”. Revista Española de Investigaciones Sociológicas. 156: 97-116. 2016.

Il·lustració. © Laura Wätcher Illustration. © Laura Wätcher

A new gap is emerging in the field of digital security or cybersecurity, in relation to data protection and privacy. Our protection in an economic context that extracts data will hinge on the level of digital literacy. We must take action to tackle the growing problem of insecurity in this realm (scams, data theft, profiling, etc.), but we must consider other factors beyond the economic dimension.

Women, half the population, may become more vulnerable online than offline. Their digital security is not just about feeling safe when browsing, executing transactions or shopping. It also involves their person, honour, intimacy and privacy. The fear of being a victim of crime in this regard, coupled with the gender-based harassment that many women suffer from sharing their experiences and opinions, can affect them on many levels, in psychological terms to work-related ones. Furthermore, network attacks can curtail women’s socialisation on equal terms and, therefore, the full development of their freedoms and rights.[4]

Wherever we look, in any of the aspects of the gaps, women have always been in an inferior position to men. It doesn’t matter whether we consider advanced digital skills or the pay gap, automation, or digital violence. Bridging the digital gender gap is forecast to cost approximately 500 billion euros overall. But conquering this divide is not just an economic issue, it is about safeguarding people’s development in a digital society and, therefore, we are talking about a democratic issue.[5]

[4] Spanish National Society for Telecommunications and the Information Society. Brecha digital de género [Gender-based Digital Divide]. Spanish Ministry for Economic Affairs and Digital Transformation, 2022.

[5] Spanish National Society for Telecommunications and the Information Society. Brecha digital de género [Gender-based Digital Divide]. Spanish Ministry for Economic Affairs and Digital Transformation, 2022.

What will the gaps of the future look like?

Digital disconnection, digital detox and interacting with humans instead of machines will be decisive aspects in the gaps of the future. All things considered, it seems that not all of us will be able to disconnect voluntarily. We are at a time of such digital acceleration that, precisely for this reason, we need to stop and read between the lines. We must understand that digital inequality goes beyond simplistic conceptions that focus on access to technology; that there is a latent, cross-cutting, systemic inequality; that digital skills have not been randomly distributed, but are the result of preconditions; and that this situation of social injustice must be contained before algorithmic reality perpetuates inequality.

As there is no homogeneous use or equal integration of technology in all public and private spheres, it is up to us to pay attention to how differences influence the make-up of societies. Connection is more than just a phone: its value must prevail, that we can use the internet every day with a convenient device, with sufficient data and a fast connection, and thus use it for whatever we want and not for the purposes established by the roles or stereotypes of a given culture.

We must explore and gain an understanding of how people of different characteristics and backgrounds incorporate technology into their lives; how their skills and their digital and social contexts differ, and how their life processes are transformed depending on all these differences. This information is extremely useful for building a just digital society. Being connected has become a much broader issue than being switched on or off. Part of our life unfolds in digital mode and, those who do not meet a series of minimum requirements to participate in it are excluded from this virtual life. The key to digital divides is to identify the differences between users, because what matters is not reading or interpreting the information, but what we do next, that is, how we lessen those gaps.

This new era of digital inequality is a challenge for all the stakeholders involved, including the State, which has a chance to boost prosperity. How can fully-fledged technological development be ensured, regardless of the population’s purchasing power or geographical location? By creating an inclusive, just and diverse digital society, marked by an effective distribution of power so that it represents a real breakthrough in people’s lives.

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