Digital Inequality Beyond the Digital Divide

How can we understand digital inequality in an era of digital inclusion?

As the open-access journal paper, Digital Inequality Beyond the Digital Divide: Conceptualising Adverse Digital Incorporation in the Global South” explains, the digital divide has been an essential and powerful concept that links digital systems with inequality.

But it is no longer sufficient.  A majority of the global South’s population now has internet access and is included in, not excluded from, digital systems.  Yet, as the figure below illustrates, that inclusion also brings inequalities – the small farmers in digital value chains losing out to large intermediaries; the gig workers whose value and data are captured by their platforms; the communities disempowered when they are digitally mapped.

Figure 1: From an Exclusion-Based to an Inclusion-Based Perspective on Digital Inequality

We need a new conceptualisation to explain this emerging pattern.  I refer to this as “adverse digital incorporation”, defined as inclusion in a digital system that enables a more-advantaged group to extract disproportionate value from the work or resources of another, less-advantaged group.

As shown below, I have inductively built a model of adverse digital incorporation, based around three aspects:

Figure 2. Conceptual Model of Adverse Digital Incorporation

Future digital development research can apply this model deductively to cases of digital inequality, and can further investigate the digitality of adverse digital incorporation. 

For digital development practitioners, the challenge will be to achieve “advantageous digital incorporation”: designing digital interventions that specifically and effectively reduce existing inequalities.  This means going beyond digital equity to digital justice: addressing the underlying and contextual causes of inequality not just its surface manifestations.

For further details, please refer to the paper; “Digital Inequality Beyond the Digital Divide: Conceptualising Adverse Digital Incorporation in the Global South”.

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