Digital exclusion & social exclusion

What is social exclusion?

Before we talk more about digital exclusion, it is worth considering the broader context of social exclusion, which has been described as a concept in need of definition.

“Social exclusion” is a contested term. Not only is it used to refer to a wide range of phenomena and processes related to poverty, deprivation and hardship, but it is also used in relation to a wide range of categories of excluded people and places of exclusion.”

Along with the challenges of a concept being used to refer to a wide range of diverse people and phenomena, the metaphor of exclusion has been identified as problematic because of the way it conceptualises society as “a bounded space with a normative centre and a problematic periphery” and the way that this makes moving everyone towards that centre the aim.

Another term which has been used in the past is ‘digital divide’ but this also has limits as a metaphor. A divide presents the image of two groups of people divided by either a gap or a barrier. Whereas in reality the same person can move between states of access/exclusion depending on changes in circumstances including in the form of life crises. An example of this would be a confident young Internet user who moved onto an Independent Youth Benefit, moved in with friends and then had to move out of that home - leaving him with limited access to the Internet and financial difficulties getting data onto his phone.

What is the connection between social and digital exclusion?

In 2016, the Scottish government funded a study into the role of digital exclusion in social exclusion. The study noted changes in how digital exclusion is defined. Rather than the binary divide between ‘user/non user’ and Internet ‘haves/have nots’ these terms were being replaced with an exploration of the gradations of Internet use.

The study noted that the relationship between digital and social exclusion remains poorly understood.

‘Digital participation can help to mitigate social exclusion by introducing disadvantaged groups access to the benefits of Internet use. However as long as social inequalities remain offline these will translate into inequalities online as those who are socially excluded are less likely to have access to the Internet and lack digital skills.’

This is consistent with the observations made by participants in this research who consistently identified offline social inequalities as barriers to digital inclusion.

For example, participants told us that institutional racism could have an effect on whether they felt comfortable asking Internet providers for more flexible contracts or a restructure of debt repayments. In a discussion between a Pākehā social worker and a group of predominantly Māori women with experience of family violence  they spoke about whether they would call a company to ask for a repayment plan.

‘My question to you would be ... if somebody sent you a letter or whatever and said give us a ring, give us a ring and we’ll arrange repayments … would you do that, would you ring them’ (Social worker)

‘No… it’s a put off..’ (Woman with experience of violence)

‘That’s our privilege, that’s [my] right... cos [I’ve] got a white people voice right that’s what it’s like and we got a culture of, we know how to advocate for ourselves…’ (Social worker)

‘I agree there.’ (Woman with experience of violence)

Digital exclusion - a systems analysis

To understand the ways in which social exclusion can be at once a driver, a symptom and a result of digital exclusion - and vice versa - it is helpful to consider digital inclusion as part of a wider ecosystem of well-being.

Scientists and researchers from many disciplines over many years have highlighted that wellbeing is the result of interacting and complex factors, but that the wider socio-economic, cultural and economic conditions in which people live are key to understanding differences in economic, social, physical and psychological well being.

A systems analysis of digital exclusion helps us see how the wider conditions of people’s lives, for example the economic and political paradigm, gender biases, racism and poverty, set up the living and working conditions people experience, the community resources they have access to, and eventually people’s behavioural responses. All of these factors together determine the overall wellbeing of people and their communities.

Not only is there a cascading effect of these wider conditions on people’s position in society, but there are feedback loops as the wider conditions affect people’s willingness to do anything to change those conditions.

Social exclusion is not, alone, a sufficient explanation for digital exclusion, but is an important lense through which to consider and make sense of the information that came through these interviews and discussions.

It was clear in our conversations that some people have the skills, confidence and motivation to use the Internet in ways that would improve their lives - socially and economically - and the main barriers they are facing are specifically around financial or physical access.

An example of this would be the young woman who had come to New Zealand as a refugee. She was confident in her skills, and motivated to use the Internet in specific ways, but because she couldn’t afford a connection at home, she relied on public free wifi, which wasn’t always convenient because of the time difference between New Zealand and her home country.

Another example would be a woman who had used the Internet regularly and confidently as part of her professional and personal life before her economic and social situation was radically altered by her need to get out of a violent relationship.

‘I’ve been at university and things like that, I’ve booked trips online. I’ve done everything online and to not have that I honestly feel as though a huge chunk of my life is missing’ (Women’s refuge, Auckland).

She had the skills, the confidence and the motivation to use the Internet, but faced a variety of financial barriers, which now made it difficult to get online. Those barriers included the front-end costs of getting connected (connection fees and deposits on devices) as well as the ongoing costs of Internet-enabled devices and the Internet itself.

What was striking about her situation was the many ways in which losing digital access had made all the other challenges she was navigating more difficult, including finding secure housing, employment and childcare and accessing health care and income support.

The women we spoke to told us that when they were not able to access the Internet regularly, things often got worse. They might not see an email from WINZ informing them of an appointment which, if they missed it, could result in their income support being suspended. Or they might need data to run the phone app they use to manage their electricity, meaning they can’t top up credit for power to heat the house.

Another example of someone facing primarily financial barriers to her digital inclusion would be a young vision impaired woman who felt motivated, skilled and confident to use the Internet but who could not do so without a specific device which was very expensive in New Zealand.

“Trying to get a laptop which is big enough for me to use in tablet mode while also reading music off it. … Like, there’s only this one in the world that I could use.” Vision impaired youth.

One of the main challenges identified by youth with disabilities was cost, and being unable to afford the equipment or technology best suited to the impairment someone has. But even the usual costs of Internet access could be a barrier for people with disabilities.

“Cost is a big factor if you are a person living with a disability. Generally you are earning less than someone who is not disabled and have fewer education and employment opportunities,” Vision impaired youth, Wellington.

These three examples illustrate that even when people have good levels of motivation, confidence and skills and are primarily affected by financial barriers, digital exclusion intersects and overlaps with other forms of social exclusion, sometimes exacerbating the other challenges people are facing.

On the other hand, many people face a complex mix of barriers to accessing the Internet, and are likely to be facing a range of other challenges in their social and economic lives.