Digital Revolution Essay (2010)

An essay of which I’m particularly fond, from my university days based around disability and the digital divide…

‘The digital revolution is changing our lives beyond recognition and today
we shall set out how Britain must change with it. Whether it is to work
online, study, learn new skills, pay bills or simply stay in touch with friends 
and family, a fast internet connection is now seen by most of the public as
an essential service, as indispensable as electricity, gas and water.’ (Gordon
Brown, 2009)

Computer proficiency is today fast becoming as important a skill as is the ability
to read and write (Clark, 2009). Every day a growing number of people
worldwide are choosing to access the Internet for purposes covering everything
from social networking, to e‐commerce, to online banking (Admin, 2009). In the
United Kingdom, primary schools now teach computer skills as part of the
curriculum subsequent to former Schools Secretary Ed Balls instructing primary
educators to ‘put computer skills on the same footing as the three Rs’ (reading,
writing and arithmetic). Balls also added that unless children are taught to
master ICT from an early age ‘there is a strong risk of a digital underclass
emerging’ (Clark, 2009). Despite this warning, studies show that such an
underclass may already have risen in our modern society, in the earlier days of
the Internet and technology (Thompson, 2005; Doria, Lloyd & Pilling, 2004).
In 2001, Kingston commented on e‐commerce in relation to the digital
underclass highlighting that an over zealous government were trying to
implement digital technologies (such as on‐line shopping, banking and other
such services) before society was ready to adjust and whilst issues of access to
computers, and consequently the Internet, were still ripe. Suddenly thereafter,
articles warning of the dangers of a so‐called worldwide digital divide were
becoming more and more prominent. However although articles have discussed
divides between race and socio‐economic groups, one prime example was left
out: disability (Dabransky & Hargittai, 2006). Whilst over time access to
computers and the Internet has, in some ways improved, this essay will analyse
and assess the ways in which it remains a problem to many, particularly to those
who are disabled. Furthermore, how the government has a responsibility to
address these shortcomings and whether or not they are doing so effectively.

April 2009 saw the release of the governments New Industry, New Jobs
report, the report highlighted New Technologies as a prime way in which to
‘drive consumer and business demand’ (Department for Business, Enterprise
and Regulatory Reform; 8) with regard to them containing the damage done to
our economy and upturning the country following the global recession. In this
case what the report is indicating is a broad spectrum of new technological
developments, i.e. advances in science, communication and computing and the
diversities of such developments, such as computing and the Internet; further, it
is underlining that the development of such technologies will help get Britain
back on track economically.

In regards to the Internet in particular, there exists much evidence to
show that services and goods are already moving more toward a digital platform
in order to sell themselves (Econsultancy Digital Marketers United, 2009).
Further evidence indicates that online shopping in particular is on the rise
amongst the general public, for example in 2009 The Guardian reported on the
growth of Amazon.co.uk as a use for Christmas shopping. The report stated that
the first Monday of December had been considered the busiest online shopping
day of the year and promised to be an even bigger selling day that year (2009)
for online retailers, in comparison with the year previous (2008). David Smith,
managing director of IMRG (Image Retail in Media Group), was also quoted as
saying that although ‘the rate of growth has slowed because of current economic
conditions … online sales are still growing,’ this was as opposed to conventional
high street market‐retailers. Whilst this evidence eloquently showcases why the
government plans to use the power of the Internet to escape recession, these
findings also uncover a potentially larger impact in regards to global marketing.

E commerce is proving not only to be a quick and easy way in which to
avoid the high street at Christmas, but nowadays is a potential goldmine for
businesses and ultimately a more convenient way to carry out business
transactions. In his 2001 paper Kingston correctly identified that e commerce
had the potential to change the way in which people carried out their lives, from
paying bills to watching TV. Nowadays, the Internet also harnesses the power to
advertise smaller and/or local businesses on a worldwide platform, giving them
an immediate marketing advantage as sellers can reach buyers further afield
subsequently resulting in more sales. The New Industry, New Jobs report also
recognises the potential in this, stating:

Britain needs to plan for more than simply recovery from
recession, because we face structural changes in the global
economy that are radically transforming the world in which
our businesses and people compete. (Department for
Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform; 6)

This is then suggesting that, in spite of the recession Britain, as a country, is
being forced to move on into a digital era if only to simply keep up with the rest
of the world economically. This new technological world can be problematic,
however, for anyone who struggles for access financially, physically or
otherwise. Kingston also recognised this, stating that, not enough attention was
being paid to problems with access (2001); although he was talking specifically
in terms of monetary drawbacks for certain members of the public, accessibility
has proven to be a broader problem. Barrett, Floyd and Pilling identified that
whilst Internet goods and services improve access for some, early research into
e‐commerce ‘suggested diminished access for some groups’ (2004; 1).

As it stands, accessibility in society is a key governmental issue; legally,
every publicly accessed building now must also be equally accessible to anyone
with or without a disability, this is according to the Equality Act 2010 however,
when it comes to access to the internet no such law exists. 2008 saw the release
of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG – in association with the
W3) these guidelines are designed in order to make websites more accessible to
people with varying disabilities, and are easily accessible to anyone and
everyone worldwide. According to the WCAG website these include: ‘visual,
auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning, and neurological
disabilities’, though these guidelines are just that, and not legally binding the
question could be posed as to whether or not the government have a
responsibility to enforce these guidelines as far as popular e‐commerce and
public service sites go. As of October 2010 a new law was passed; the Equality
Act 2010, the act states that it is a lawful requirement to ‘provide information in
an accessible format’ so that it can be understood by any person (Government
Equalities Office, 2010; 4). As the policy does not specify the format to which it
applies (eg. printed information booklets or otherwise) it must entail all
information; therefore it can be argued that by not employing this law to the
Internet the government are not fulfilling their promises, whilst at the same
time, ignoring the problem of the digital divide.

The digital divide has been a consistently growing issue since the phrase
was first coined in 1995 (Sevron cited in Adam & Kreps, 2001). Commonly
referred to as simply a gap between those who have computers and those who
do not, it has been argued that the divide is more than this; van Dijk professes
that even when everyone has a computer and internet access other inequalities
will simply come ‘to fore’ soon after (2006; 1180). In her book Norris outlines a
pattern of division between the social classes (racial, gender and financial) of
America (2001). In a journal article emphasising on what they refer to as the
Disability Divide, Dobransky and Hargittai reveal findings which highlight how
disabled people are also less likely to own or use a computer; the artical further
reveals that of these people, once a ‘socio‐economic background’ had been
established it turned out that people with hearing and mobility issues were not
as likely to be affected (2006). Despite this studies have proven the divide to be a
growing problem on a worldwide and continental level alike (Wakefield, 2010).
Wolfensohn has also commented on this divide, describing it as ‘one of the
greatest impediments to development’ (cited in Norris, 2001; 40). Though these
cases highlight a worldwide problem, the digital divide is as problematic
nationally. On which level, it can be assumed that responsibility to overcome the
divide falls into the hands of the government.

As a response to closing the gap of the Digital Divide, the government
released the National Plan for Digital Inclusion, released alongside the Digital
Britain Report, the plan aims to recruit 7.5 million more users online by 2014.
The report amplifies the necessity to get everyone in Britain at the same level
digitally, stating that ‘digital participation’ is ‘increasingly crucial for full
participation in 21st century society’ (Department for Business, Innovation and
Skills), recent reports back up this claim. In 2010 The Guardian ran a story
claiming that the Minimum Income Standard report revealed that people no
longer see a computer and Internet connection as a luxury but essential in order
to find job opportunities and discounts on goods and services:

The Minimum Income Standard differs from the
government’s official poverty line … it is an attempt to
determine what, aside from physical necessities such as
food, warmth and shelter, people need to allow them to
feel part of society. (Gentleman, 2010)

For the disabled in particular, the feeling of social exclusion is often already a
daily reality. The Internet, objectively has the power to reduce or diminish these
feelings of social worthlessness, with the development of social networking sites
such as Facebook, web‐cam applications such as Skype, and the aforementioned
growth of e‐commerce, a disabled person nowadays has the opportunity to do
things simply and from the comfort of their own home, which might once have
proven more challenging/impossible. In relation to social networking in
particular, in 2002 Suler (cited in Russell, 2003) examined how the Internet
offers the capacity to ‘deconstruct’ one’s personality in order to highlight a
particular element of the individuals’ persona, and/or hide, or draw attention to
another. Russell exemplifies this by the terms of a disabled user who, with use of
the Internet can communicate themselves as a ‘mother, sci‐fi aficionado, disabled
person, student or as a mixture of any’ (2003; 239). In other words, the Internet
offers disabled people the chance to express who they are without attention
necessarily being focused on their disability alone.

The Internet is then a key way for the disabled community to reconnect
themselves with the general public. However, if their disability makes computer
access difficult this technology is, again, no longer available to them, pushing
them further from society, rather than the desired effect of bringing them closer
(Russell, 2003; Dobransky & Hargittai, 2006). The National Plan for Digital
Inclusion report contains details of the priority groups who will be the first to
benefit. These groups are identified as:
• The elderly
• Low income families/households
• The unemployed
• The under‐qualified
• The disabled
(Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2010; 13)

However, categorising large groups of individuals as one in order to address
their problems and offer assistance is a largely contradictory stance to take.
Adam and Kreps consider that ‘digital divide literature is surprisingly reticent
about disability’, further going on to state that this lack of discussion is having an
adverse effect in terms of equality (2005; 1044). Certainly, it can once again be
suggested that the problems with accessibility to the Internet, in relation to
disability, fall into the hands of the government, but whilst the Digital Britain
Report and Digital Inclusion report both mention disability and access in
monetary terms, neither mention the lack of attention paid to the physical access
of the web itself. The Equality Act too is surprisingly mute to matters including
the Internet. Adam and Kreps again seem to agree on this point, stating ‘critical
discussion of how governments use technology to achieve social inclusion
is somewhat thin on the ground’ (2009; 1045). Further going on to state that
both intellectual and political discussions of the digital divide have a tendency to
wrap disability up in ‘a blanket category of the potentially disadvantaged’,
concluding that this is as unhelpful as it is ‘unanalytical’ (2009; 1045).

The Digital Inclusion report also outlines several key needs, which the
government plan to address in relation to computer accessibility (also addressed
in the Digital Britain Report):
• Affordability – of both equipment and on‐going costs
• Capability – ensuring that all parties have the skills and motivation
• Availability – ensuring a wide availability of key services
(Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2010; 10)
In terms of capability both the Digital Britain Report and the National Plan for
Digital Inclusion detail plans to introduce free adult computer proficiency
lessons, the Digital Inclusion report professes the reason for this is partly to do
with education with tests showing that ‘only 52% of UK adults with no
qualifications have internet at home’ in comparison to the 78% of people with
basic qualifications (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2010; 12).

At the end of the article How to Make Use of Internet in Daily Life, Admin
argues that to enjoy the internet it is not necessary to be ‘very much educated,’
and that, ‘a person with basic knowledge can make full use of internet facilities,’
(2010). This is debatable; once you possess a basic knowledge of IT the Internet
is fairly easy to operate. This was not always the case as the Internet was once
reserved for those with a predetermined level of technical expertise, it was not
until the launch of the first graphical web browser in 1993 that it was opened up
to the general public, becoming accessible to everyone who possesses the ability
to point and click with a mouse (Norris, 2001; 270). However, as previously
highlighted, for those who do not possess such motor skills, are visually impaired
and/or otherwise similarly disabled the Internet can, oftentimes, remain as
inaccessible as it once was, yet nothing has been recommended by the
government or any other related party, to suggest any resolution to the problem.

In conclusion, from the outset the government seems to be responding
well to the digital divide in terms of the general public. However, as uncovered
throughout this paper, their reaction to access and disability is not at all
forthcoming. Access guidelines, as provided by the W3, offer a beacon of hope
and greater access to the Internet for a wider variety of people, but until these
guidelines are made statutory they will remain ignored by the masses. Ultimately
the digital divide shows no signs of disappearing anytime soon, so long as people,
whether disabled, from a low income family, under‐educated or otherwise,
continue to be categorised as one rather then studied in a more concentrative
manner.

Bibliography

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