Questioning the Digital Inclusion Concept

Questioning the Digital Inclusion Concept
Questioning the Digital Inclusion Concept

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Contribution selected by Filodiritto among those published in the Proceedings “Social Inclusion and Equal Opportunities – SIEO 2016”

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Bogdan Popoveniuc1

1 University “Stefan cel Mare” of Suceava (ROMANIA)




The technological progress was epiphylogenetically connected with the evolution of human species. The progress of society was dialectically intertwined with the technological progress. The present human cognition is changing under the influence of digital technologies. The pervasive Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) becomes already the new social environment. Their ubiquity, every-purpose and utility are taken for granted. ICT has a similar social-like networking structure and there is no wonder that their effects are seen as being beneficial in all social areas to address resourcefully to any social issue. But can they solve sensitive issues such as social inclusion, equal opportunities, economic and life chances, civic engagements, self efficacy and so on? A proper social inclusion implies more intermingled resources, dimensions and interventions than that. What should be and how can be achieved social inclusion remains a matter of intentionality, empathy and human solidarity.


1. The ITC incentive for social development

The tremendous development of human economy, science, technology, social institution and so on was exponentially amplified by the development of information and communication technologies (ITC). The ITC global system permits a new style of communication, working, shopping, dating, and making friends, in a word, of living. The digital life is not only a complementary counterpart of a preexisting “real” life, but the new way of living, a new culture and civilization. Its ubiquity entails dependency. The modern man, the modern society is completely reliant on digital technologies. This fact is two-folded. First there is the problem of individual and group digital inclusion, the second is the consequences of the global civilization digital inclusion.

The marvelous technological progress inflamed people’s imagination. ICT’s progress is the messianic sign announcing the imminent passage to a very good, peaceful and prosperous society. The discourse sounds very confident but it lacks any empirical proof on the relationship between ICT development and economic growth and social integration: “broadband Internet (…) is both a new engine of economic growth and a valuable source of innovation. Broadband Internet, along with related products and services, is the foremost tool for people-to-people connectivity across the region and is accelerating inclusiveness at all levels of society, bringing transformative opportunities to the poorest and most disadvantaged members of society”[1]. The fundamental assumption is that the most important inequality became the digital one. People are doomed to poverty, marginalization and poorer living style if they have no access and make no use of ICT. But we can see the opinion about digital divides is influenced from the beginning by the cultural perspective adopted [2]. The society, its fundamental pillars, its mechanism of development, aims and dynamics are different if we understand it in the techno-economic terms of “knowledge economy” [3] or in those of socio-cultural impacts of “information society”[4]. For the first perspective, the informatization of society is the goal in itself and social evolution results automatically from it. The development of ICT and improving the quality and quantity of online services will ipso facto result in an overall substantial democratization of ICT usage. As a consequence, it covers the truth of knowledge society under quantitative depictions and promotes social policies dominated by technological determinism, while citizenship is understood mainly in terms of consumerism.

A knowledge economy instead is believed to deal with the necessity of re-engineering the technological process by society and this “marks a fundamental shift from technology driven innovation towards user and society driven innovation.” [2] Unfortunately, the development of digital society is driven by the same techno-economic mechanisms. The complexity, virtualization, globalization and high-technologies only conceal the real nature identity of this mechanism, hinder the development of a sustainable participatory information society for all and make difficult to diagnose and change the treatments policies. The access, education and training, online information and participations should be fundamental citizen rights according to the “European Charter of Rights of Citizens in the Knowledge Society”. [see also 5] In such a society the online networks are of the same importance as the offline ones, and an e-inclusion is, to a major extend, a social inclusion. As will become obvious further, only institutional commitment to such perspective goes beyond the simple techno-economic perspective goals of access to ICT devices and services, and digital literacy towards the real people’s empowerment (skills and competences) and participation (awareness and willingness) [6].


2. Digital Divide and Digital Inclusion

The difference in access, use or impact of ICT on daily life, business and leisure time brings about economic, social and cultural inequalities. This phenomenon is known as the “digital divide”[7]. It can result from various barriers: political – state restrictions to Internet (Soudi Arabia, Cuba, China, Iran, United Arab Emirates), educational – illiterate people have almost no use of Internet connected computers, financial – the society has no resources for infrastructure and individuals with low income can afford to spend time on computing activities, technical – bandwidth computer update, software, linguistic – English minimum proficiency, autonomy of usage (home, work, public places, monitorised, time restrictions) and/or limited accessibility, and the lack of social capital – individuals from societies with political and cultural backward conducts (corruption, fundamentalist, superstitious will not take advantage from computing technologies). It is influenced by psycho-social individual factors such as usability and willingness[7]. It is less a problem of simple availability of computers and connectivity between “haves and have-nots” but a broad inequity the complexity of “model of ICT access: There is not one type of ICT access, but many; the meaning and value of access varies in particular social context; access exists in gradations, rather than in a bipolar opposition; computer and Internet use bring no automatic benefit outside of particular functions; ICT use is a social practice involving access to physical artifacts, content, skills, and social support; and, acquisition of ICT access is a matter not only of education, but also of power”[8]. For this reason the dichotomous conceptualizations in “haves” versus “have-nots”, “technologically rich” versus “poor”, “user” versus “non-user” or “high”, “medium”, “low” and “non-users” between those who either lack the skills and opportunity to access ICT or who are in a less equal position in terms of its use with an entire constellation of influencing factors ranging from the structural and technological ones to the social and cultural ones[9].

The ICT is a very complex and sophisticated system of information networking and, as a consequence, the digital divide concept covers multiple aspects as “who, with which characteristics, connects how to what”. [10] Various subjects as individuals, organizations, corporations, schools, hospitals, churches, and so on and so forth, are divided as regards education, geographic location, income, age, motivation or reason not to use, in a more or less sophisticated usage as simple access, retrieval, intensive or extensive in usage, interactivity, innovative contributions, etc., related to what means of connection are at stake: Internet, fixed or mobile telephony, digital TV, broadband, etc. so “a one-size-fits-all outlook on a multifaceted challenge might rather be harmful”. Although the gap between different population groups recording the access to computers and the Internet is reducing from year to year, a “second order digital divide” related with usage of ICT in terms of the user behavior, perceptions, and expectations, starts to become visible.

The big problem for an efficient policies approach on digital divide influence on social exclusion consists in this simple understanding in material terms. The usage of internet, as a sufficient solution for economic growth and social inclusion is an excluded middle fallacy. Internet involvement is not just a problem of availability or affordability of access, but also one of lack of interests, understanding or time as surveys indicate. The dichotomist reasoning is misleading [11; 12; 13; 14] The effects of ICTs are complex, diverse and non-linear.

In the first place, ICT development had obvious positive effects. It leads to economic growth, access to information, and, this could lead to a favourable change in attitude of disadvantaged classes. It eases access to knowledge and to new verified trusty ideas. Knowledge is power and favors technocrats and hence better government. Technology enabled societies exhibit higher levels of transparency and accountability. But as long as the access to all features and ICT infrastructure is not universally equal negative major effects arise. Educational stratification due to information people has access. The Mathew effect in academia is one of the most insidious, unfair but pervasive factor, and the big universities and research centers take hypocritical advantage of it. Digital Divide affects society by increasing economical stratification in and between societies. ITCs increase the development of countries with stable societies, governments and economies more than those without and this increases the divide between developed and developing countries. It also can enhance control over citizens, disseminate propaganda, indoctrinate people, and spread hate messages. ICT technologies allow the concentration of power in the hands of the few, Technocrats or Technology enabled classes. “Our technological powers increase, but the side effects and potential hazards also escalate”[15, p. 429]. Actually, ICT contributes to deeply influence on the social area but it neither creates nor destroys the inherent inequalities. Their effects depend on non-technological factors such as education, language, culture, politics, social capital, etc. The literature of research studies on ICT influencing the social inclusion is revealing the same leitmotiv that digital inclusion must play an important role, despite little supporting evidence. Many studies strive to demonstrate this by using imaginative factors and key elements to make evident and measure this relation, [16, p. 32; 11; 17] but a linear rapport is hard to make obvious.

Another much sensible issue with programs intended to improve people life through ITC is the fact that they are subject to perverse incentives[8]. The Internet provides a lot of opportunities, information needed for being up-to-date to find job offers, improve your knowledge, make new connections and so on. But Internet makes people more indolent in thinking for themselves in a imaginative and creative manner, demoralizing through available uncontrolled immoral information. The use of technology in schools does not always have positive effects on social inequality. School technologization can even worsen education and social divides if this is resumed to endowment with devices without corroborating with integrative pedagogical approach based on critical collaborative inquiry and analysis[18]. Second, there is an epistemological problem. The “big problem with «the digital divide» framing is that it tends to connote «digital solutions,» i.e., computers and telecommunications, without engaging the important set of complementary resources and complex interventions to support social inclusion, of which informational technology applications may be enabling elements, but are certainly insufficient when simply added to the status quo mix of resources and relationships” [Rob Kling in 18, p. 8]. However you cannot use technology for solving the problems brought by technology, without entering in an apocalyptic loop. It seems that “the most important and urgent problems of the technology of today are no longer the satisfactions of the primary needs or of archetypal wishes, but the reparation of the evils and damages by the technology of yesterday”[19, p. 9].

There are inconsistencies in some technological solutions like education technology as Worldreader program meant to increase the access and the experience of reading…, but only for those with a cell phone or tablet, or health technology CareMessage app by text messaging. Of course there are more effective solutions, but they are more complex and integrate the endowment of technology with social and labor enterprise. An example of such welfare technology is Samasource (“sama” means equal in Sanskrit) which aims to alleviate worldwide poverty by connecting unemployed people in impoverished countries to digital work. Workers, especially women and youth, are assigned simple digital tasks as elements of a great structuring data projects helping them to develop technical skills and transition out of poverty. But technology is most and foremost a mean, a tool and not a task. The problems lying at the core of digital divide are political and social, and deeply rooted in human nature. The present technology is enough for solving the Economic Problem, but hundreds of millions of people still suffer from hunger, deprivation, and diverse shortages, because the human nature is not elevated for a welfare society. Technology could not solve the problem, neither by bio-moral enhancement, nor by technological progress. Any artificial utopian solution such as centralized economic system, bio-moral enhancement, ideological fundamentalism, falls, sooner or later, in its contrary. Humankind needs a cultural evolution at peace with technological progress; otherwise the social problems from the real word will only migrate in other forms in the interrelated digital world. We don’t know how to think about the tools we are able to create. We have to learn how to think about technology and after these will be able to think sustainable technical solution for social inclusion.

The mere access to computers or internet does not entail learning, as the widespread habit of children wasting hours playing games on a computer proves. “Research has shown that beyond just having the hardware, what is important is the “social envelope” it comes in: the technical and social support provided to children as they learn[20]. The access to technology should be accompanied by a digital pedagogy. The $100 laptop program or that of a tablet for every student “one device per child” was almost a complete failure. This although some reports shown that socioeconomic status of the students as indicated by a number of family background characteristics, as parental education, profession, and income. For impoverished countries the most effective measures for improving school participation and educational outcome includes, but are not limited to constructing schools and hiring additional teachers, providing subsidiaries for school attendance and textbooks[21]. If is to be effective for social inclusion, digital inclusion requires additionally to passively access and use of ICTs, the ability and opportunity to adapt and create new knowledge using these. The user should evolve and enhance its ability and develop his potential by usage of ICts and not simply using them as replacements for daily activities. People are not online because of many reasons like lack of “access – the ability to actually go online and connect to the internet; skills – to be able to use the internet; motivation – knowing the reasons why using the internet is a good thing; trust – the risk of crime, or not knowing where to start to go online”[22]. The “5 Cs” of digital inclusion – connectivity (access), capability (skill), contentconfidence (self-efficacy) and continuity between real and digital life – sum up this idea. [17] Digital inequality is a more nuanced concept than digital divide and is organized along several factors: technical means depending on quality of equipment, autonomy of use related to the ability to use the digital medium freely when and where one wants to, skills or the ability to use the Web for the purposes one prefers, social support that is the availability of others for assistance, and purposes of use of the very activities performed by users[23].

Digital disadvantages as the location, quality of access and types of online activities is linked to social disadvantage as health, employment, income, education and other social status measures. As a result, deep social exclusion and deep digital exclusion are strongly connected. “Deep social exclusion consists of a combination of no or little education, low income, unemployment, health problems, and low social status coincide with deep digital exclusion consist of no access or access only outside the home, no or low quality (dial-up) access at home, negative attitudes towards technologies, and a limited use of the Internet (only one or two types of activities performed)”[16, p. 9]. The similitude between exclusions from social and digital worlds manifests on literacy aspect too. The digital illiterates of today have to bear with the same disadvantages as the illiterates of yesterday.

In the present circumstances digital inclusion is a social inclusion. As the exclusion from non-digital world, a person secluded form digital interactions is prone to increased social exclusion.  A digital excluded person, is “being shut out, fully or partially, from any of the social, economic, political and cultural systems which determine the social integration of a person in society”[24, p. 8]. In the forming future Web 2.0. society digital inclusion is required for the dominating human species of inforgs, informationally-embodied “organisms (inforgs), mutually connected and embedded in an informational environment, the infosphere, which we share with other informational agents both natural and artificial”[25, p. 94].


3. From Digital Inclusion to Digital Improvement

As the above analysis revealed, the digital inclusion is not a goal in itself limited to the mere provision of computers and the availability technological infrastructure but a mean for marginalized people “to engage in meaningful social practices”[8], i.e. skills, cognitive ability, motivation, social identity and empowerment. Digital empowerment which “is not a direct consequence of having and using the technical facilities, but a multi-phased process to gain better networking, communication and cooperation opportunities, and to increase the competence of individuals and communities to act as influential participants in the information society”[9]. The potential of Internet environment for addressing social problems is not fully used, social networking for lessen social isolation, institutional and online services for those disadvantaged like “innovative social networking applications for the isolated and vulnerable elderly, engaging educational services for those with poor educational achievement; or financial applications (eg access to online shopping and selling, second hand markets like Freecycle, debt advice and benefits) for those who are economically disadvantaged”[16, p. 14].

Even so, the digital inclusion is just the first step, mandatory but not sufficient of participation decision-making processes, empowerment against marginalization, exclusion or discrimination. This could work only in the short run, but in order to be efficient it should be seen from the beginning in the form of digital improvement “equal opportunities strategy is unnatural for human essence, as it is more opportunities” the first is a stagnant state, the last permit unlimited evolution because there is no limit in how many opportunities can be provided along with the dialectical human development, first against a democratic dynamics. Both are forms of empowerment. “Now, both forms of empowerment are increasingly linked to available and accessible information. Both are needed in order to ensure more equality and better standards of living”[25, p. 114].

The specific of political mechanisms tends to promote approaches to digital divides after cost and immediate results. The result of the researches reveals more complex deeper images. Online networks provide obvious opportunities for social inclusion, both for young [26] and older adults, [27] but in particular conditions. Technology is a means, not a solution, for preparing scholars or workforce. It only amplified the social policies. Increasing the number of computers in schools could not be a viable solution (as many EU funded project in Romania does) in the absence at least of a promotion out-of-school computer access, establishing training and support networks, and address the needs of English language learners[28]. Some studies shown there is no pre-existing linear causal relation between ICT use and better opportunities or performance. They have influences in terms of social integration on five major areas: productive activities, social activities, consumer activities, political or civic activities and personal development, but “the relation is different depending on the types of users”[29]. Other studies reveal that population as street youngsters who were surprisingly apart from daily stress of assuring basic needs as shelter, food, clothing were unexpectedly interested and knowledgeable about computers, and are in daily or weekly contact with ICT-related activities from email and Internet search, job/housing search, and resumé creation[30, p. 175].

Awareness programs have to change the mentality, the cultural development fund in order to understand how technology works. All the processes should start from awareness not just material infrastructure which is the necessary condition. The impact of such policies starts form awareness, which leads though the need of access, hence the necessity of gaining and improving skills through trainings, increasing the diverse scopes and volume of usage, and from here, back to the increasing awareness about the usefulness and necessity of ICTs. The policy makers have their role to play in a key point of this process of self-enhancing process of social inclusion thought digital engagement[31]. The policies’ strategies should start from the desired impact, not from a convenient definition of subjects’ characteristics which connects how to what. In normative terms: “Given the desired impact, who, with which characteristics, should best be connected how to what?”[10].

For increasing ICT awareness policymakers „should do more to promote curiosity and provide Try IT events”, they must have “initiatives to encourage employers to broaden access to the Internet and ICT training in the workplace” and “enhance and support the development of online centers and public access points.” They have to actively promoting the access, establishing a Public Access Resource Centre which “should act as a focus or signpost to provide telephone and online information for socially excluded groups and promoting “closer liaison and/or co-location of online centers with neighborhood learning centers” for enhancing skills and providing training. One key finding in many studies for a more efficient use of ICT is even the “improvement in online benefits systems, they are perceived as difficult and unfriendly to use” in many countries.

The ITC and networks are not just artifacts, but more comprehensive political and social spaces in both structure and content. In these conditions, it is possible that regulation could preclude economic and societal benefits of ITC development. Crucial for avoiding the emergence of a new digital divide is not only  relying on “developing a more solid ICT infrastructure”, but also the implementation of an integrated strategy meant to improve conditions for skills, innovation and entrepreneurship grow [32] fostering an aware mentality about the human technology relationship. But primarily the first ones to be nurtured is the policymakers’ self-awareness, about the role and place of technology in contemporary world, the self-awareness about their place and role and the true meaning of their work. The social worker is not a functionary of the present world’s state of affairs, but the visionary of the social world of tomorrow.


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