Transcending the digital divide
Why did the chicken cross the digital divide? To get to the planet of the bots.
Whether you are a self-described technophile embracing the convenience of wireless, voice controlled everything, or a technophobe who wishes you could still pay for the train with coins, there is no avoiding the digital transformation that is engulfing our lives.
These themes are explored in the recently published 20 Predictions for the Next 20 Years, specifically Prediction 8 and Prediction 18. Prediction 8 describes a future where our lives are materially enhanced by the machines and digital systems we surround ourselves with. And it’s a description of nice future, full of friendly robots doing all the work that we people would rather not. This future is contrasted with that of prediction 18, which warns of an inevitable split between the benefactors of this technology and those who do not have access to it for whatever reason, be it financial, cultural or geographical. The implication is that those left on the wrong side of the digital divide will be greatly disadvantaged.
The digital divide is often described as a binary that exists between those who have access to technology and those who do not, and that we as a society need to bridge this access divide so everyone can benefit. Before we can consider doing this, we must first ask: Will prediction 8’s Planet of the Bots be a place where everybody wants to live? For some, like our proverbial technophobe, the answer may be ‘no’.
While inequitable access continues to be a growing problem, there are in fact individuals who do have access to technology, but are not interested in adopting it as they see no relevance. For example, a significant number of non-Internet users say they are not online because they are not interested or they don’t have the time, rather than a lack of access or affordability. These people are not seeing advantages for them, and instead see disadvantages like compromising their personal privacy.
Groups like those who wilfully abstain from technology reveal to us that the digital divide is not only created by a lack of access, and that technology is not made for everyone to begin with. The digital divide is a symptom of existing divisions in society, be they economic, geographic or demographic. What’s more, technology is often used to proliferate these existing divisions, whether by design or not.
Both predictions warn of a risk that we encode societal biases in the technological systems and algorithms we create. There are plenty of current examples of systems that do just this, that marginalise already oppressed groups. While this is not the intention of these systems, it does highlight that we must do better in future, and recognise the need for more inclusive development and diversity in training data and inputs.
Careful consideration of both intended and unintended consequences of technologies can provide insight into how they will be used, and therefore allow us to design worthwhile and inclusive systems. Take the example of a medical exoskeleton, a mobility device intended to help disabled people with paralysis of the lower limbs walk independently. Sounds awesome right? However, the devil is in the detail: currently available versions of this technology, for example, do not enable the user to climb stairs, and are prohibitively expensive, especially for disabled people who often have lower incomes. Balance this with existing technologies such as the wheelchair and it is less clear what the mobility benefits to disabled users actually are. Instead, marketing materials cite benefits such as enabling users to “stand up, walk about, and speak to peers eye-to-eye” without questioning why, or even if, these are necessary or desirable in the first place. Another look might reveal this technology has some way to go before becoming a gold standard in assistive technology.
Doubtless, there are people who cannot access technologies that they need or want, and it is certainly important that we support digital inclusion. The other, less tidy issue here is not about being left behind by technology, it is about being left behind by society.
This is where we need to focus our attention as we look to the future: how we can use technology to bring people together rather than expanding already existing divisions.
Olivia Reeves is a 3Ai Masters intern that has joined KPMG Australia as part of a knowledge exchange between 3Ai and KPMG.