New ways of engaging during lockdown: turning to the digital at different costs
Over the past months, as we tried to establish a ‘new normal’ for living and working from a distance, we have discovered new tools to reach out to family, friends and undertake work and leisure practices.
For those of us familiar with these tools, the lockdown due to the global spread of COVID-19 has meant that we have intensified many of our online activities. The digital possibilities of staying together, staying in touch and staying on top of the current situations, whilst physically distant, have become the main avenue for coping with the current situation. However, as critics have begun to point out, the turn to the digital is not the great equalizer and we are certainly not ‘all in this together’ equally, because access, skills and participation for the digital world is neither evenly distributed, nor open to all.
What do we actually mean by access to the digital world, and why are potential digital inequalities so critical during these times? In a recent briefing paper we authored for UNESCO UIL, for background to their bi-annual Learning Cities Conference in October 2019, we highlighted risks and vulnerabilities regarding digital inequalities emerging in cities. At the time when we were preparing this report, little did we know how critical and timely will it become for the current lockdown in which many vulnerable groups across the globe find themselves. While we wrote the report in the context of developing inclusive cities and supporting the realisation of Sustainable Development Goals, the points we raise are highly pertinent in the current climate as well. The most marginalised groups in society - older adults, those from socially deprived backgrounds and those in economically precarious positions - are most at risk from both COVID-19 and digital exclusion, leading to onward ripples of inequality in health and work for years to come.
As we all turn to the digital to stay informed, to work, and to feel connected with our loved ones, we should remember that the experience of the digital is unequal because:
- Not all people have access to digital devices. Yes, mobile phones are the new currency of our lives and computer use is on an ascending trend even in the most remote communities around the globe. However, stable internet connections and existent infrastructures do not operate in the same way across all countries and all communities of use. People continue to feel disconnected even with access to phones, not mentioning those who do not have access to such devices in the first place.
- Having a device does not automatically mean that the user can access it to its full capacity. Critical digital literacies are necessary to enable people to use these devices fully.
- Even with access to the online world, vulnerable communities may not see the import of staying connected or engaging with digital content globally. In certain contexts of social and economic vulnerability, the online world may come as an afterthought, when the survival of the family takes precedence. In some areas, such as those ridden by conflict and war, during COVID-19 the digital may be viewed as a luxury rather than a lifeline.
- Awareness of digital content is not the same as awareness of digital data. With the current lockdown, we have seen some bold digital proposals to address the crisis, from staying socially connected and health-informed to tracking cases and freeing the data to visualise trends more accurately. We have heard the possibility of making available apps to track cases of COVID-19 in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. Yet, how many of us can access and control the data that goes into these apps and visualisations? How many of us have reflected on what happens with other types of data made available online through all our buzzing debates on how to cope with this pandemic? Data literacy remains a critical area that we need to develop within our communities, be they highly connected to the digital or minimally linked to the online world.
As we briefly outline here, digital vulnerabilities and inequalities emerge not only from the contexts in which we find ourselves - of resource richness or scarcity, of access or non-access - but also from how we engage with and understand the digital (in terms of content or data) and the digital world (in terms of access, social connectedness and economically impactful use). The current circumstances have made more visible some of the critical vulnerabilities that lie ahead of researchers, who need not only investigate how we have gone digital during the pandemic but also how we can go back to our communities and strengthen their capacities to deal with the digital in critical and reflective ways. We must act now to address these vulnerabilities to digital inclusion or risk addressing generations of increasing digital inequalities globally.