The internet has shaped and continues to construct communities riddled with structural inequalities to a large extent. The internet was not built to deliberately exclude entire categories of people, however through its inherent infrastructure (whether purposeful or not) elements of social and cultural divides, class structure, education and so on has seen that exclusion and inequality was an inevitable outcome. The internet continues to be a tool for increasing inequality and widening the gap of the ‘digital divide’.
Defining structural inequality.
The United Nations define structural inequality as: “A condition where one category of people are attributed an unequal status in relation to other categories of people. This relationship is perpetuated and reinforced by a confluence of unequal relations in roles, functions, decisions, rights, and opportunities…”
Michael J. Stern suggests that at its core “…digital inequality…can be reduced to access and proficiency” (Stern, 2010, p29). This theory is not uncommon amongst academics, understanding that the ability to access a tool and the education available to enable usage of that tool, can relate not just the internet but also many forms of media before. I suggest the ability to purchase a newspaper but also being able to read. Willis & Tranter describe this as Technological diffusion, and liken the inequality of internet access and skill to the origins of television in Australia from the 1950s (Willis & Tranter, 2006). They suggest that:
“Diffusion theory shows that new technologies spread or diffuse unevenly: initial access is typically among those with higher status, economic resources and educational capital (Rogers, 1995).” (Willis & Tranter, 2006, p45).
Willis & Tranter liken this process to the natural occurrence of heterophily, describing the inequalities of the internet as a trickled down effect of resources, that areas and communities who suffer from exclusion to the internet will soon reach levels of normalization. I disagree, to suggest that the internet simply hasn’t reached parts of the world is somewhat true, as Stern suggests “…inequality that results from the unequal distribution of these technological resources.” (Stern, 2010, p29). However, I believe the social, cultural and classists factors that play dramatic roles in determining a person’s access to this resource, outweigh a simple ‘waiting game’.
There are more specific influences of the structural inequalities of the internet, that also inhibit its development for other communities. Willis & Tranter describe the complex nature of internet inequality alongside its many contributing factors, saying “Internet use in Australia is structured by complex inequalities, as income, age, education, occupational class and indeed gender cross-cut one another. (Willis & Tranter, 2006, p56). Furthermore, it is not just the structural bases that create inequality throughout the internet, but also the human competitive nature. Margarita Billon’s research showed that not only should internet developers be focusing on the diffusion process of market competition pricing and structural placement “…but should also increase human capital investments oriented toward reducing social divides, especially in developing countries where inequalities may affect the impact of Internet use.” (Billon et al, 2018, p455) They suggest that a focus in breaking down the barriers that prevent those from access the internet will significantly shape and reduce the overall structural inequality of the platform.
Similarly Sarah Glencross comments that for those who are already privileged, the internet can often self-reinforce their online capabilities into real world benefits, such as renewed social connections e.g LinkedIn and educational opportunities e.g online courses (Glencross et al, 2021). Glencross confirms that in the same way the structural basics of the internet discriminate against many, it also has the potential to “…amplify and accelerate” those who benefit already from its platform (Glencross et al, 2012, p515).
Ted Talk – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fzokRz1pgb0
Jim Sevier speak on his aspirations for a development of a shamanic digital interface, which would give everyone the ability to access the internet and its platform regardless of their education and language skills. He also speaks on promoting technologies that provide affordable access to the internet, bridging the inequalities placed in its foundation. This, Sevier suggests will bridge the digital divide.
China as a case study.
China is an example of how an entire country can feel the structural inequalities of the internet in their daily use of online platforms. The development of the internet in western democratic societies relied upon the wide and free sharing of all sorts of information. This ideology for the current Chinese communist party is not believed to be in the best interest of their people. De Kloet suggests that China’s development of their own social mecia platforms is a combination of platform capitalism and the intrusive role of the state (de Kloet et al, 2019). De Kloet suggests that these combining interests display an obvious inequality, and that the . “…development (of their internet) is strongly aligned with the infrastructural ambitions of the Chinese authorities….” (de Kloet et al, 2019, p251). Alongside this, Leguina & Downey suggest that Chinas:
“…lower levels of media freedom and Internet penetration, alongside lower income and higher inequality, correspond to a greater polarization in terms of the distribution of strategies for information-seeking and problem-solving.” (Leguina & Downey, 2021, p1841)
Ted Talk – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3X4l3S-O70
Brigitte Daniel relates the fight for civil rights to the inequalities of the internet, focusing on three topics she says that make up The New Undeserved. 1) Personal aptitude, 2) Size and diversity of the network, and 3) Cost structure. Daniel comments that a lack of diversity in internet providers, means many minorities are being priced out of the market. Daniel looks to those who are advocating to keep the internet accessible, to safeguard a new generation fighting for ‘internet civil rights’ .
Great Britain as a case study.
Green et al, studied the inequalities of the internet when searching for a job in Great Britain, their findings shed light on the drastic structural inequalities in place for the British public, particularly focusing on ageism and racial discrimination. By 2009, four in every fifth person looking for a job in great Britain was using the internet as part of their search (Green et al, 2012). The advertising market had also largely moved from print media to the internet for head hunting, application forms and job posting. Green et al, suggest that the likelihood of those looking for jobs online had a greater success rate, as the internet had more search tools available to them, thus a larger intensity of search (Green et al, 2012, p2348). This increasing reliance placed on the internet for job search has ultimately excluded many in Great Britain, with Green that this new contemporary labour-market is “…“raising concerns about inequalities associated with digital divides…” (Green et al, 2012, p2344). Their studies showed that in Great Britain job seekers over the age of 35-39 are increasingly less likely to use the internet as part of their search, than that of the 16-24 year old group; and that a continual downtrend trend is observed (Green et al, 2012).* See Image 1. This is dissimilar to the United States and Australia where the gaps of internet usage based on age and gender are closing however the “…divides based on education and rural/urban residence persist, with income (being) the most important factor…” for internet inequality (Willis & Tranter, 2006, p47). Whilst age seems to be the most influencing factor of internet inequality in Great Britain, Green et al suggest that ethnicity can also play a small role. From their research they argue that “…Asian or Asian British job seekers are significantly less likely (3 percentage points) to search online than are White job seekers, while the ‘Chinese and other’ ethnic group displays a marginal positive effect.” (Green et al, 2012, p235). Green et al, findings provide significant evidence to support the argument that inequality of the internet is clearly present throughout Great Britain. That some categories of people are not placed on an equal playing field, that those with access to the internet and its platforms tools already have a head start in the competitive job market against those who don’t.
Billon, M., Crespo, J., & Lera-López, F. (2018). Educational inequalities: Do they affect the relationship between Internet use and economic growth? Information Development, 34(5), 447–459. https://doi.org/10.1177/0266666917720968
de Kloet, J., Poell, T., Guohua, Z., & Yiu Fai, C. (2019). The platformization of Chinese Society: infrastructure, governance, and practice. Chinese Journal of Communication, 12(3), 249–256. https://doi.org/10.1080/17544750.2019.1644008
Dutton, W. H., & Reisdorf, B. C. (2019). Cultural divides and digital inequalities: attitudes shaping Internet and social media divides. Information, Communication & Society, 22(1), 18–38. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2017.1353640
Gillespie, T., Boczkowski, P. J., & Foot, K. A. (Eds.). (2014). Media technologies : Essays on communication, materiality, and society. ProQuest Ebook Central https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.library.sydney.edu.au
Glencross, S., Mason, J., Katsikitis, M., & Greenwood, K. M. (2021). Internet Use by People with Intellectual Disability: Exploring Digital Inequality—A Systematic Review. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 24(8), 53–520. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2020.0499
Green, A. E., Li, Y., Owen, D., & Hoyos, M. de. (2012). Inequalities in use of the internet for job search: Similarities and contrasts by economic status in Great Britain. Environment and Planning. A, 44(10), 2344–2358. https://doi.org/10.1068/a452
Leguina, A., & Downey, J. (2021). Getting things done: Inequalities, Internet use and everyday life. New Media & Society, 23(7), 1824–1849. https://doi.org/10.1177/14614448211015979
Stern, M. J. (2010). Inequality in the Internet Age: A Twenty-First Century Dilemma. Sociological Inquiry, 80(1), 28–33. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-682X.2009.00314.x
Willis, S., & Tranter, B. (2006). Beyond the “digital divide”: internet diffusion and inequality in Australia. Journal of Sociology (Melbourne, Vic.), 42(1), 43–59. https://doi.org/10.1177/1440783306061352