Updated: Feb 5
Ever had to help your parent or other elderly on how to use a phone app? Is that how digital inequality works, or is there more to it?
In recent years, “Smart Nation” has been a buzz word, a vision by the Singapore government to make “our lives better” (Lee, 2014). Initiatives come in the form of cashless payment systems, enhancing our public transport and communication networks, and more.
With the need to be competitive in a global digital economy, our government is swift in identifying key areas of opportunities to realise our Smart Nation goals. However, the costs that come with opportunities also include those who struggle to reap the benefits of those opportunities. These may often be the same people who fall through the cracks in other aspects of their lives, such as household income and socio-economic class.
Impact of COVID-19
When the global COVID-19 pandemic struck us, it meant that maintaining social ties via online platforms has become the “new normal”. While the pandemic has shone the light to many forms of inequality, the digital divide had become more pertinent.
The literature on digital inequality have often included different levels of the digital divide:
Varying access to the Internet (Van Dijk, 2006)
Differences in skills and uses of the Internet (Hargittai, 2002)
Users’ capacity to “translate their Internet access and use into favourable offline outcomes” (Van Deursen & Helsper, 2015)
When I read Singapore’s Digital Readiness Blueprint, we seem to be combatting the first two levels – the need to bring basic digital structures and skills to all parts of the population.
Regardless, divisions from all levels can manifest in many forms, affecting different social groups (and through the lens of different social theorists). Here, we see how existing inequalities in “offline” social structures are often easily reproduced and mapped onto into the digital “online” realm as well.
1. The Under-Class: As some of us may have experienced, parents and teachers too had to adapt to the home-based learning environment quickly when the pandemic hit us. This inevitably affected those from disadvantaged families much more than those from privileged families (Lee & Yeo, 2020). Because of differences in economic resources, a Marxist approach explains why those from the lower class tend to lose out on the access and skills of technology.
2. Persons with Disabilities (PWDs): Former Singapore Nominated Member of Parliament Yip Pin Xiu highlighted how PWDs are often left behind during the pandemic (Toh, 2020). She raised the plight of PWDs who face challenges accessing and interpreting pandemic-related information and applications.
Based on Weber’s idea of status beliefs, PWDs may be conferred a lower social status compared to those without disabilities. Given rapid digitisation, this may result in the exclusion of PWDs from digital resources and lower life chances by virtue of their social positions.
3. The Elderly: For those who interact with our elderly family members, we may have encountered some who eschew technology or even form labels on digital natives (Toh, 2017). Due to their unfamiliarity with technology, the elderly may be accorded a lower social status because they are unable to progress as fast as everyone else in digital literacy. Similar to the plight of PWDs, such cultural beliefs and rapid digitisation may lead to digital exclusion and lower life chances as well.
The elderly’s resistance towards technology may be further reinforced because they don’t realise how technology benefits them. This may also intersect with social class, where the elderly do not possess high levels of economic and/or human capital to afford and/or be versed with technology.
When analysing a phenomenon like the digital divide, the multifacetedness allows us to view the issue from both the Marxist and Weberian lens (and more, if you wish). Where class differences are concerned, a materialist Marxist approach views digital inequality as simply a disparity of economic resources. To fully appreciate the nature of digital inequality, a Weberian approach highlights how one’s life chances can be affected because of their social positions.
Policy and campaigns aside, we as individuals can:
Understand how one’s social group or life circumstances may provide a different set of resources and skills from others.
Be patient, thoughtful, and helpful towards PWDs and the elderly if they ever require assistance with technology (or anything at all!). This includes our parents, grandparents, and even strangers!
Innovate and be user-friendly if you ever develop a product or service for the public, bearing in mind factors such as illiteracy or impaired vision
Food for Thought
How would Durkheim explain the underlying factors behind digital inequality?
How would the idea of intersectionality play a part in the degree of digital inequality?
What are some mechanisms that sustain or perpetuate the digital divide?
By Amir Mirza, Year 3, Sociology Major
Hargittai, E. (2002). Second-level digital divide: Differences in people's online skills. First Monday, 7(4), 1–14.
Lee, H. L. (2014). Smart Nation: Better Living, More Opportunities, Stronger Communities - Smart Nation Launch. Speech, Marina Bay Sands.
Lee, V. & Yeo, S. (2020). How home-based learning shows up inequality in Singapore - a look at three homes. The Straits Times. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/how-home-based-learning-hbl-shows-up-inequality-in-singapore-a-look-at-three-homes
Ministry of Communications and Information. (2020). Digital Readiness Blueprint. Ministry of Communications and Information. Retrieved from https://www.mci.gov.sg/en/portfolios/digital-readiness/digital-readiness-blueprint.
Toh, E. M. (2017). The Big Read: Feeling lost in a digital world, some elderly shun technology. TODAY. Retrieved from https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/big-read-feeling-lost-digital-world-some-elderly-shun-technology.
Toh, W. L. (2020). NMPs urge Govt to look out for persons with disabilities during Covid-19 pandemic. The Straits Times. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/parliament-nmps-urge-govt-to-look-out-for-persons-with-disabilities-introduce-cultural-pass
Van Dijk, J. (2006). Digital divide research, achievements and shortcomings. Poetics, 34(4-5), 221–235.
Van Deursen, A., & Helsper, E. (2015). The third-level digital divide: Who benefits most from being online? In Communication and information technologies annual (pp. 29–52). Bingley: Emerald.
Chan, W. (2011). Singapore's ageing population: Managing healthcare and end-of-life decisions. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Dobransky, K., & Hargittai, E. (2016). Unrealized potential: Exploring the digital disability divide. Poetics (Amsterdam), 58, 18-28.
Hargittai, E., Piper, A. M., & Morris, M. R. (2019). From Internet access to Internet skills: Digital inequality among older adults. Universal Access in the Information Society, 18(4), 881-890.
Lai, L. (2020). Policymakers must be sensitive to how digital tools impact inequality: Desmond Lee. The Straits Times. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/policymakers-must-be-sensitive-to-how-digital-tools-impact-inequality-desmond-lee
Robinson, L., Cotten, S. R., Ono, H., Quan-Haase, A., Mesch, G., Chen, W., Schulz, J., Hale, T.M. & Stern, M. J. (2015). Digital inequalities and why they matter. Information, Communication & Society, 18(5), 569-582.
Van Deursen, A. J., & Helsper, E. J. (2015). A nuanced understanding of Internet use and non-use among the elderly. European Journal of Communication (London), 30(2), 171-187.