Digital Inequality in An Increasingly Technical World
Are we leaving too many people behind?
In a rather strange piece for WIRED, Naomi Anderman warns of “The Danger of Digitizing Everything.” She begins with a mundane example:
In 2024, I will walk into a physical space—a restaurant, a hairdresser, an arts venue, an artisanal cheese shop—and instead of being handed a physical piece of paper with some useful information on it, or being told it in words, I will be shown a faded roundel with a QR code on it. I will hold my phone’s camera up to it wearily. Sometimes it will work, but the font on the menu or the information will be small. I’ll have to enlarge it and take my glasses off to read it, because I’ve reached that age. Sometimes it won’t work at all. Sometimes the information on it will be out of date.
That . . . doesn’t sound dangerous.
In all cases, many people—some elderly, others with access needs, children, anyone who just doesn’t fancy constantly looking at their phone—will be pushed toward more useless screen time and away from the kind of brief, friendly interactions with other humans that help us all feel part of the fabric of life. We’ll have reached the point of overdigitization.
Pretty much every technology, from the printing press to recorded music to the automobile to radio and the Internet, has had this same effect. I just can’t imagine that digital menus will be the thing that puts us over the edge.
It’s not that there aren’t more gains to be made in technology. Incredible things are happening in biotech, especially since the pandemic. The world of continuous glucose monitors and lateral flow tests (LFT) will keep growing. In 2024 we will see new kinds of LFTs that test for other infections and problems. We will see more useful work in truly personalized medicine. But in the UK, at least, the benefit of those innovations will be increasingly available only for those who can pay for it themselves. The division between the technological haves and have-nots will only continue to grow.
I know painfully little about these new technologies, much less the pertinent UK policies surrounding them, to have much insight. But it seems quite reasonable that, as technology marches on, those who are for whatever reason unable to take advantage of it will be left behind.
And although technology will continue to flourish, my guess is that the truly big gains in digital communication have now been made for a generation.
I am by no means a technology expert but would bet a lot of money that her guess is wildly wrong.
If there’s innovation to come in digital communication it will be in the field of overdigitization, using screens where paper and actual words from real people both work better.
Better for whom? And by what definition of better?
We could—and should—use this next decade to shore up the gains we’ve made for all members of society. But I predict that, in 2024, we won’t. The Good Things Foundation estimates that 10 million people in the UK lack the basic digital skills needed to access the modern world. And 6.9 million people will continue to be excluded if they’re not given proactive help. But the current British government doesn’t seem much interested in raising the floor for the worst off.
Again, I have little insight into the state of technical competence of the British population but will assume it’s roughly similar to that in the US. That roughly a 7th are, for whatever reason, lacking in “basic digital skills” seems quite plausible. I’m naturally skeptical that it’s government’s responsibility to fix that but it may nonetheless be prudent.
These things can’t be done by individual companies, which come up with good-sounding ideas like, “why don’t we let people order a coffee while they’re getting their hair done, using a QR code!” It’s exactly the kind of things that incorrigibly urban WIRED readers like me think would be fun to use—but companies don’t tend to think about how to help people who aren’t going to spend money with them, or who are too put off by over-exuberant digital-everywhere to actually go into the shop.
I’m in my late 50s and routinely see people considerably older than me using smartphones, QR readers, and the like. But I’m in one of the more affluent, well-educated parts of the country. So, maybe this is a bigger problem than I think.
But, again, the use of a mundane example like ordering coffee while getting one’s hair done isn’t exactly compelling evidence that Something Must Be Done. If you can’t figure it out, get a coffee after your hair appointment. Or, you know, ask someone to help you.
Companies can look after their employees. And they can work to overcome that other half of the overdigitization problem: that many jobs are becoming more boring and isolated because they involve the equivalents of more pointing-at-QR-code-roundels and less actual interaction with people. But while companies can think about employees and about good customer service, thinking about improving equality and fairness is the job of government, not businesses.
Maybe! But, again, if the issue is people unable to navigate restaurant menus and coffee ordering, I’m skeptical that it rises to the level of governmental intervention.
There is of course one thing I can predict with total certainty for the UK in 2024: That the British public will get to have their own say on digital inequality and a whole host of other issues. Because, in 2024, Parliament will be dissolved in advance of an election.
While I’m more knowledgeable than the average American, I am not an expert in British politics. But I confidently predict that “digital inequality” will not be among the key issues on which the next election is decided.