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 Sometimes the information on it will be out of date.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.

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. gVOR10 says:

    There seems to be a small RW freakout on now over automatic faucets. They want to be manly men and turn a handle themselves … or something. They seem of a piece with this Wired bit. They remind me of the non-phosphate detergent and incandescent light bulb panics. It’s always something. On a larger scale we’ve had abortion, gays, CRT in K-12, gender surgeries on minors, library books, anti-semitism at Harvard, what the Civil War was really about, … I lose track.

    There is, or was, a website that listed the meaning of the various lapel/bumper ribbon colors. Is there a website somewhere that tracks the conservative freakouts du jour?

  2. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Kudos to the Brits for paying attention to this kind of encroachment by the digital empire. Something that doesn’t get emphasized enough is that keeping up with digital change (I don’t say improvements, it’s change period) is that you have to pay for it. No, sorry, you’ll have to upgrade your laptop to the next Microsoft office version because Microsoft won’t “support” it anymore after April – sorry!! Or, buy a more expensive i-phone or tablet or whatever because the one you have is only good for 24 months at best and soon nothing will work on it anymore. And remember when you bought a laptop/tower and bought the software and that was it? Well, now you pay Microsoft an annual fee to keep using it.

    All these changes cost money and yes, I can see how older people on a fixed income see this as some kind of rollercoaster that you can never get off. Not to mention anyone on a strict budget or has trouble with reading/vision or deciphering technical terms. Customer service has become something you have to pay more for while nonsense like the QR code or self-check-out at retailers is for the losers. And I’ve gone to restaurants that tried to make me read a QR code rather than hand me a menu and my response was to say “No. Give me a menu or I’ll go somewhere else.” Every time they managed to come up with a menu. Surprise!

  3. CSK says:


    Haven’t taps that turn themselves on when you wave your hands under them been around for decades?

  4. gVOR10 says:

    We occasionally eat at Applebee’s. (I know, but they’re the closest not fast food, open late, added nice patios for COVID, and are otherwise really convenient. They’re cheap. And if you try hard you can stay under a thousand calories.) They tried little order entry/card terminal devices on the tables. They seem to have given up on them. Even at Applebee’s customer service seems to count for something.

  5. gVOR10 says:

    @CSK: Yes. So have DEI and race based admissions. Being an old issue isn’t proof against becoming a conservative kvetch.

  6. Sleeping Dog says:


    But it was an accident that a RW’r actually washed his/her hands and discovered handleless faucets.

  7. Sleeping Dog says:

    QR codes for menus and payment have been abysmal failures. Paper menus are back and running the card at table side is now leading edge payment.

    The real concern about digital inequity, isn’t so much the olds not keeping up, @Not the IT Dept.: but the cost of staying current.

  8. charontwo says:

    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.

    I’m naturally skeptical that it’s government’s responsibility to fix that but it may nonetheless be prudent.

    This seems kind of analogous to printing ballots in various languages or building sidewalks in a way that accommodates Rascal type scooters at intersections. I am pretty OK with this type of government mandate even if the wingnuts aren’t.

  9. JKB says:

    The real inequality happened when it became impossible to apply for a job except online. No way to get over the check offs on the HR spreadsheet by demonstrating real skill and ability.

    No way to show you more than the faceless assumptions about the non-college, the gaps in experience, or even an ethnic name.

    Worse, companies run continual “ghost” job openings to “see what’s out there” but they are unlikely to ever fill. This runs up the job openings numbers but not the job finding numbers. They also impose a cost on the unemployed as they apply to a job that isn’t going to be hiring and not those where being hired is possible.

  10. Kathy says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    And remember when you bought a laptop/tower and bought the software and that was it?

    Honestly, no.

    As I recall, you ought the PC, you bought the software, and every few years you bought upgrades or new versions of software. With games, also expansion packs (optional).

    Given how much Office 2007, one of the last versions to come out on CD*, cost when I got it, the annual sub for Office 365 isn’t outrageous, IMO, assuming a 2-3 year upgrade cycle.

    My home desktop PC I got in 2013, but it’s older than that. It came with Windows 7. It runs Win10 fine. I suspect it will run Win11 if/when I bother to do the end-run around MS’s installer. I won’t do that until support for Win10 runs out, and I suspect I’ll want a newer PC by then anyway. I’m thinking a gamer laptop (I don’t do gaming, but they run really, really fast), and a huge monitor.

    *I also recall installing prior Office versions of 3.5″ floppies.

  11. DaveD says:

    The real digital inequality is access to high speed internet in rural areas as opposed to qr code menus in London. Just as the tva brought electricity to an under served region (not without a lot of issues) something should be done for under served communities. Tech isn’t going away but a gap is growing in ways WIRED or the Economist aren’t going to write about.

  12. Scott says:

    Part of the problem with the digitalization of the world is not just the requirement to be online and understanding it but rather the requirement for communication technology. Getting back to the homeless situation discussed yesterday, the requirement to have wireless communication is a huge barrier. The big freakout of “Obama phones” totally missed the point that there are no payphones left. The homeless who may have a phone have to search for power on top of everything else. And, of course, any use of the internet requires an ID of sorts which the homeless are missing. Even for the housed, digital communication tech is required. In poorer districts school systems hand out Chromebooks as a necessity for learning but students have to have access to communication systems for them to be useful.

  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Speaking as one who has been left behind by this increasingly digitized world, I can only say, “Thank Dawg.” QR chords are the spawn of the devil and smart phones are a plague. I am grateful I will soon be dead and will no longer be afflicted with all the BS.

    Oh yeah, GET OFF MY LAWN!!!

  14. wr says:

    @JKB: “No way to show you more than the faceless assumptions about the non-college, the gaps in experience, or even an ethnic name.”

    You mean showing up at an interview to show them that despite your ethnic name, you’re really white so it’s okay to hire you?

    Some people might wonder why the computer was programmed to screen out “ethnic” names in the first place. But JKB as usual is only concerned with establishing his superiority over the mud people…

  15. Grumpy realist says:

    There’s also the tendency of Silicon Valley companies to dream up products which assume that everyone who uses them has access to a T-1 line as opposed to the lucky-to-get-half-bar-connectivity found in far too many locations of the U.S.

  16. Gustopher says:

    Contrarian view: the people who lack the skills to scan a QR code to order their coffee are the same people who lack the media literacy skills to tell what is real on the internet, and would be mainlining QAnon.

    Now they have to get their QAnon second hand, and hopefully are better at reading people — Q Pilled folks are really annoying at least.

  17. steve says:

    I am mixed on this. I am mostly OK with tech and computer stuff since my specialty is pretty heavy on the use of fancy toys. That said, I am not really a digital native. I dont think I have ever understood stuff as well as my younger staff, certainly not as well as my daughter. I think the divide has grown a bit over the years. I will confess that a couple of months ago I gave up on trying to figure out how to use a parking app (I have a couple that I use pretty often) and we went back home to thaw something from the freezer rather than try the new restaurant we wanted to try. (Parking was bad.) It’s annoying that every chain store has a different self serve checkout so you have to learn the rules, which arent always obvious.

    Is there a role for government? Im not sure. I think there would be some value if stuff was more standardized so you dont get surprised with having to learn a new app at the last second. I think you can make the case that there has been value in eg standardizing electrical outlets in our homes. I dont really think we are there yet, but it would be nice if I didnt have to carry 3 different charging cords any time we travel.


  18. Scott says:


    I think there would be some value if stuff was more standardized so you dont get surprised with having to learn a new app at the last second.

    My 29 year old daughter (who pretty technically savvy) was railing the other day about “having to download some app to do anything anymore”. Rent an apartment, get power turned on, park, etc. Then went on about how they are just vacuuming up personal information. Concerned me. Was it the start of paranoia and conspiracy theories? Anyway, I reminded her of my personal campaign: to pollute the data about me by giving random, contradictory, unimportant data about me. Like birthday, phone number, address, email, etc. Anything that whoever was dealing with me didn’t really need to conduct business with me.

  19. DK says:

    I’m a millennial, the cohort defined by having an analog childhood then a digital young-adulthood. First gen on AIM and Napster/Limewire (R.I.P.), Facebook, Instagram; last gen on rotary phones, the card catalog, cursive, the Dewey Decimal System, etc.

    Some of my friends and I still request paper menus, if not provided. Usually not a problem, except when the paper menu is unavailable or out-of-date. Then we begrudgingly acquiese to the QR code hassle.

    Personal computers have been widespread almost all of my life, smartphones ubiquitous for about half. So, yeah, I can download your coffee shop’s .pdf menu or navigate to a clunky website with chimpanzee-level UX design — I just don’t want to.

    Does this make me and my friends old fogies? I’d take it as a compliment. How much money are eateries really saving on printing and lamination costs, really?

  20. DK says:


    Was it the start of paranoia and conspiracy theories?

    She’s probably just frustrated with extra hassle unnecessarily complicating our already complicated world. Very minor first world inconveniences that feel like death by paper cuts.

    We’re not 40 years old yet, and we’ve been through 9/11, Great Depression II, Spanish Flu II, Dobbs, the Kardashians and Real Housewives and “reality” TV (shudder), and now MAGA and the Cold Civil War, Putin’s Ivan the Terrible Act, and the start of a Third Intifada.

    I’m here to give myself a little treat, wasting money I don’t have as my grandparents steal my Social Security. I don’t want to download your overpriced, greedflation restaurant’s app. Just give me a danggum paper menu. Please.

  21. just nutha says:

    I’ve never been in a restaurant where I needed to scan a QR code. Is this just because I live in a small town and don’t go out much, or am I living in a parallel universe?
    (I also don’t know what a parking app is:-( )

  22. Bill Jempty says:


    Personal computers have been widespread almost all of my life, smartphones ubiquitous for about half. So, yeah, I can download your coffee shop’s .pdf menu or navigate to a clunky website with chimpanzee-level UX design — I just don’t want to.

    Does this make me and my friends old fogies?

    In a sermon just recently, a priest talked about how telephones used to be. You had a cord and there was no caller ID and people would ask who’s calling.

    The priest also mentioned the gigantic early cellphones made by Motorola and said their size made them excellent personal defense devices.

  23. Bill Jempty says:

    QR codes? I know how to do them but I tend to stay away from them or having a bunch of apps on my cellphone.

    Just recently I had an experience with a large chain of gas stations. Scan their QR code and get a discount. Then why when I did this was I at a website asking for donations?

  24. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Bill Jempty: Because the website was sponsoring the discount for the gas station company? That’s my guess, anyway. (While I’m here, I’ll also admit that I don’t know how to use my smartphone to scan a QR code. Then again, I’ve never seen a QR code that I needed to scan, either. Maybe I do live in a parallel universe.)

  25. Matt says:

    @Not the IT Dept.: That’s because MS decided they would arbitrarily set a cut off point for CPU support for windows 11. Despite windows 11 running fine on an ancient dual core….

    The more suspicious/conspiracy minded people amongst the computer industry believe it’s intentional on MS part to increase hardware sales and stuff. Whatever it is I was highly amused to find that MS’s latest and greatest surface computer wasn’t supported by windows 11…

    So I along with a lot of other people are now just riding windows 10 for the foreseeable future.

    @JKB: Wow you’re actually dead on with this post. You can see those ghost jobs constantly on indeed and other job hunting web sites.

    Pretty much every time I’ve entered a place of business to apply for a job I end up being told to go to a web site. Even businesses with placards out front saying “NOW HIRING” will tell you to apply online and then basically ignore you.

    @just nutha: Be glad you haven’t experienced the “joy” of parking apps. A whole other set of scummy and scammy behaviour going on in that industry lately…

  26. DrDaveT says:

    Minor trivial version of this: event tickets.

    I bought my parents tickets to a show as a present last fall. Not only did I have to download and install the almost-certainly-malware-packed Ticketmaster app in order to purchase the tickets, my 80-year-old parents had to do likewise to receive them. And had to be above-threshold tech savvy to use the tickets to attend the show. That’s just stupid.

    The trend is to push more and more of the effort onto the consumer, not because it’s more efficient overall but because it saves money for the provider. I don’t care about restaurant menus or other optional spending; I do care about people who can’t get proper healthcare because they lack the access or the skills to use the online patient info portal.

  27. Grumpy realist says:

    Considering the ideas that have been coming in applications across my desk, the hoovering up of data, use of QR codes, V2V or V2I, Internet of (Things/Drones/Whatever) is here to stay. Chances are these will remain until the acute lack of security ends up causing the whole system to collapse in a chaotic heap.
    I have a background in physics and technology and try to stay away from as much wireless communication stuff as possible. No Alexa, no smart fridge/stove/whatever. Were it not for the map feature I wouldn’t have a smartphone, either….

  28. just nutha says:

    @Grumpy realist: I ended up going to a smartphone because I use enough phone and text service to make TracPhone too expensive. Also flip phone replacement became prohibitive.

  29. Chip Daniels says:

    As a 63 year old, I want to be befuddled by new technology, but most of it really isn’t that difficult to master.

    What IS annoying is the pace of turnover of technology. In a few years no one will know what a QR code is or what a “tweet” is since they will have been replaced by something new. I generally wait to adopt a technology until it is really important to me, since trying to stay current with every new thing just gets exhausting.


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