Tackling Digital Inequality Together

2020 has revealed that digital inequality is a global problem. IT researcher Catherine Mulligan says we must find the courage to think in new directions.  

Catherine Mulligan | June 2020
Katherine Mulligan


Dr. Catherine Mulligan is an honorary senior research associate in computer science at University College London and co-director of the Centre for Cryptocurrency Research at Imperial College London. She was a member of UN Secretary General António Guterres’ High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation. This group of experts developed recommendations for how our digital future can be designed for the good of all and in the spirt of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.  

2020 has been a watershed year as global digital inequality has been placed into stark relief. Due to Covid-19, millions of children are missing out on school: others are being taught digitally. Similarly, a dramatic line has been drawn between those who can work remotely and those who cannot. Previously, digital exclusion was often viewed as something that could be put off for later, but the last few months have illustrated that digital inequality is real and an issue in nearly every nation in the world.  

What does comprehensive digital inclusion mean? 

When we wrote the UN High-level Panel report on Digital Cooperation, we did not foresee that our section on digital inclusion would have such relevance so quickly. Our recommendations for every adult to have access to digital networks, as well as digitally-enabled financial and health services certainly resonate well in today’s world and not just in lower income nations – the fault lines of digital inequality are clear across all countries from the Global South to the USA and UK as schools in deprived areas are just as unable to deliver education as those in the Global South. The report suggested that private sector, governments, NGOs and civil society should work together to deliver full digital inclusion and enable data sharing for delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals. It is now more important than ever for us to ask ourselves: what does full digital inclusion mean?  

Digital inequality is deeply seated in inequality itself – and in our preconceived ideas about how the world works. It is our accepted norm that some people/countries get “less,” while others get “more.” This is a norm solely because we have accepted for several generations that this is the way things are. This continues today in the digital world and hampers the ability for individuals and nations to fully embrace digital technologies.  

In order to overcome digital inequality, we need to overcome some aspects of inequality itself and these cannot be treated as separate things.

As humans, we tend to blame the grand sweep of history for industrial and societal revolutions – as though we had no choice. Ultimately, however, humans caused these events, affected them and directed them. In the same way our current digital revolution is in our hands, but we must challenge ourselves to not just think differently, but also act differently. In order to overcome digital inequality, we need to overcome some aspects of inequality itself and these cannot be treated as separate things.  

The data monopoly of a small number of companies 

Humans are simultaneously extremely innovative and tremendously narrow-minded about the potential of digital technologies. Since the advent of the silicon age in the 1960s we chose to recreate the digital world in the image of the existing physical economy; an economy that is based on inequality between capital and labor that has formed society for centuries. Inequalities in the real world have merely been transferred to – and often compounded – in the digital one. 

For example, we are told we must accept inequalities in the accumulation of data for all sorts of reasons – the costs of storing data, the level of investment needed, the skills required in analytics. This means that data monopolies have been created and exist in a small number of corporations and in a small number of nations.  

Recreating the digital world in the image of the physical one has also just not worked – it has created an incredibly brittle economy overly dependent on centralization and multi-national corporations; an economy that grinds to a halt if one part falters. This has been presented to us as an inevitable natural process; but it isn’t. Overcoming inequality requires greater resilience in our economic system. The basis of the physical economy – land, capital and labor – really don’t have the same meaning within the digital realm and this is being ignored.  

The need for a new global social contract 

The digital world requires a new social contract – one that demands a rethink about what labor looks like when so much of our data is used for commercial benefit. Policy-makers so far are looking at important but small things like privacy while failing to address the wider implications of digital. We are therefore sleepwalking into even higher levels of digital inequality – paradoxically by our intention to do good.  

Merely having connectivity does not guarantee you have the education, electricity and employment to make effective use of it.

The reason digital inequality is so complex is because it reflects real-world inequality. Those without access are usually in a nexus of exclusion – merely having connectivity does not guarantee you have the education, electricity and employment to make effective use of it. Indeed, many nations can buy digital technology but struggle to apply it effectively – this productivity paradox is clearly seen in the UK.  

The danger of digital colonialization  

Failure to take the full spectrum of digital inequality into account, therefore, merely compounds the impact of digital exclusion; you might be able to connect but only ever as a participant contributing data to monopolies housed in other nations, never as someone fully empowered to reap the economic and social benefits yourself. The balance of digital power is an important question when assessing digital inequality; many narratives focus on “advanced” countries and “those that need help.” A critical aspect governments, private sector and civil society need to think through properly is: what is the global social contract around digital? Without this, it can become a form of digital colonization.  

Often when I raise this point, people raise cryptocurrencies as an example of how the average everyday person can “win,” not merely participate in the digital world – but is this really true?  

Bitcoin emerged during the 2008 financial crisis. The first truly peer-to-peer currency, Bitcoin’s inventor(s) behind the pseudonym “Satoshi Nakamoto” outlined a way to remove the need for banks from value exchange between individuals. Leaving aside the mystery surrounding Satoshi and rollercoaster valuations of cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin’s biggest achievement is the thought experiment it launched. Rather than merely recreate the existing financial system of centralized control by government and large companies, Satoshi instead took full advantage of the digital world to create a currency run by the people for the people.  

Technology does not exist in a vacuum and needs to navigate a complex set of political and corporate interests.

It was a bold idea and led to significant wealth creation for some people. It has not yet, however, done much to overcome inequality – digital or otherwise. Cryptocurrencies for me are highly illustrative of the narrow mindset often applied around digital technologies – technology does not exist in a vacuum and needs to navigate a complex set of political and corporate interests. A decentralized approach makes many people uncomfortable – particularly those that have deep vested interests in our current economic system.  

The advantages of digitally enabled decentralization 

This is the same problem that many of the solutions proposed to overcome digital inequality also face; not technical problems, political ones. Giving people full access to the economic system via digital technologies across all nations as full equals often makes people just as uncomfortable as decentralization does. It requires us to think differently about the underlying forces of ownership of data and other digital assets and forge new norms for interaction. Some people will lose power and so we need strong political will to achieve it.  

Digitally enabled decentralization – not solely crypto-currencies – can redefine more than just money – it can empower us to create a different world and apply innovative ways to connect local with global, small with large and multinational. It frees us to not just imagine a world with digital equality but to build it too; we just need to realize it like Satoshi did. Digital co-ordination of decentralized economic activity could enable a balance between local economic growth and globalization in a way that is beneficial to – and equal for – all, where data created by individuals is used to increase their agency and grow the economic capacity of the nation they are living in, not only global data monopolies.  

It will take courage to drop our established ideas about digital inequality and it will take deep thought; it is the challenge of our generation – we must rise to it and build the political and citizen will to do it.