In the networked society and digital economy, global information flows are creating new patterns of communication and exchange, arguably rendering traditional urban patterns almost obsolete. However, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has the potential to continue to widen, both online and offline, with possible new forms of inequality emerging.
Housing Technology’s ‘Digital by Default’ report (DbD) focuses on how to address the divide in relation to digital inclusion and IT use by those in the social housing sector as a means to address social inclusion. The report suggests a predominantly ‘deliberative approach’, where active decision-making is carried out with state agencies, citizens and organisations interacting to discuss issues and reach decisions (decisions shared and deliberated upon) in an attempt to overcome the divide. According to the DbD report, over 8.7 million adults in the UK have never used the internet nor experienced the benefits of going online, and 4.1 million of these adults are living in social housing.
However, the research contained in the report shows that regardless of the breadth of knowledge and information being made available to the housing sector about making the digital transition, in most cases the cost of moving to digital services is over estimated by many of those housing providers being targeted. Furthermore, that most of the providers are completely unaware of the benefits and opportunities associated with moving to a more digitally-oriented service provision.
In this article we explore the deliberative model approach, as emphasised in the DbD report, as the impetus for housing service providers to get UK adults to go online. For example could deliberation about individualised governmental programmes such as the Family Mosaic program or other digital champion’s initiatives be improved? Or could the deliberative successes of corporate and government housing providers form the basis for new business models to address the ‘digital divide’ in the UK?
At its foundation, the DbD housing initiative begins with a housing provider developing the technology provision and associated services for its tenants such as hardware, software and wi-fi connections. The technology infrastructure is identified as solving many of the foundational problems of digital exclusion for a core of otherwise disconnected residents, as well as embedding how housing provision will be provided in the future. The initiative stresses that it will be important to back such technology provisions with reasons to go online, including incentives, motivation, and skills development for all stakeholders. Examples of support, information, business contacts and business motivations for stakeholders are therefore being regularly disseminated and outlined in informative publications such as Housing Technology.
Another positive element of the DbD initiative is the introduction of awards for social housing landlords who provide help for tenants to build skills and stimulate motivation for continued usage. However if successes of the initiative are to grow and develop, it will be important to build such awards and to capture and reproduce models of best practice and innovation for potential interested landlords and tenants. It is therefore important for new service providers to receive encouragement and support from existing landlords who have made the transition to online service provision and can elucidate the process. Furthermore, it will be useful to capitalise on success stories that are not being measured purely in economic terms or seen as having only immediate returns, but where there is longer term and sustained focus on the knock-on effects of the value of digital inclusion.
Social housing providers play a key role, offering “low-cost computer and connectivity deals to tenants”. IT is critical in every area of the new society; proclaimed as “the key to unlocking employment, education and training opportunities and tackling worklessness and social exclusion in communities” (DbD, p5). However there are question about whether the classical sociological concepts are sufficient to explain today’s inequality in an information society.
Van Dijk (2006, p222) emphasises that “one should carefully distinguish between different kinds of digital divide, for example in the shape of a number of types of access.” In varying degrees, Fox and others within the DbD report do acknowledge the need for different types of access but fail to mention conditional access such as pay-per-view and subscriptions. Secondly, skills are not explained in full detail; for example, Van Dijk (2006, p 224) notes how an order of skills must be developed succinctly, beginning with the user developing operational skills, followed by the application of information skills and finally strategic skills. To be socially included in the information society requires development through all of these stages, especially important in terms of employment in the ‘knowledge economy’. And while one technology might be mastered, constant developments of devices, connection speeds, content and programs for example, require persistent levels of support for the most vulnerable to stay ‘socially included’.
In assuming the divide is fundamentally a technology limitation the digital divide might then be redefined as a ‘broadband divide’ (NTIA, 1999). This understanding within the DbD report accounts for a potential disparity of ideas and delineated in case examples about what constitutes effective action for solutions and the deliberative rhetoric of overcoming the barriers of ‘digital opportunity’ for the individual (DbD, p12). Varying abilities of skills access will create other societal divides and shifts, one of these being the impact on wage dispersion in rich countries where IT is creating a dramatic rise in income inequality (Bresnahan, 1999; Sanders, 2005).
Balancing the digital divide debate becomes more problematic when too much emphasis is placed on the individual to acquire IT skills as a means to address the divide. This happens by moving the responsibility for addressing the problem from governments to individuals and educational institutions (Epstein et al, 2011). An over-individualised emphasis within the DbD report explains why the importance of the national digital champions network and the community support programs have not been prioritised. However this oversight can also be understood as an error in application; for if the initiative is to truly be successful, there will need to be support from the public to push for government intervention to “pursue infrastructural improvements, subsidise large-scale material improvements, and address the political contexts on a national and international scale. All of which must be addressed to rectify the broader socio-political inequities that undergird the digital divide” (Epstein et al 2011, p101). Therefore, support from the public along with support from private institutions is key to a truly successful deliberative model and, as shown in the report, will greatly enhance the success of the policy implementation as a totality.
Authors: Anita Greenhill & Katie Ganly, Manchester Business School, University of Manchester
- Bresnahan, T. (1999) Computerisation and Wage Dispersion: An Analytical Reinterpretation. The Economic Journal, 109 (456) pp. 340-415
- Epstein, D., Nisbet E. and Gillespie, T. (2011) Who’s Responsible for the Digital Divide?
- Housing Technology & Race Online 2012. (2011) Digital by Default 2012
- NTIA (National Telecommunications & Information Administration): United States Department of Commerce. (1999) Falling through the net: Defining the Digital Divide
- Sanders, M. (2005) Technology and the Decline in Demand for Unskilled Labour: A Theoretical Analysis of the US and European Labour Markets: Edward Elgar Publishing
Van Dijk, J. (2006) Digital Divide Research, Achievements and Shortcomings. Poetics, 35(4-5) pp. 221-235