08 February 2021

Information Inequality in the Digital Age

India girls laptop

The internet and the digital technology required to access it has never seemed more important to the daily success of our lives, and indeed our survival, as it does in 2021.

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, which took hold across the world in 2020, at the time of writing many are still dependent on digital and online technology in order to do basic things like work, go to school, shop for food and engage with most, if not all forms of music, art and culture.

While in so many ways it is very fortunate that the pandemic coincided with this digital era – for most of us it has allowed us to continue eating, earning and learning while minimizing the risks to ourselves and others – this dependency creates a huge inequality, splitting the population into those who have and those who have not.

Even before the pandemic, the speed at which digital technology was evolving and the extent to which it was becoming more and more intrinsic to our day to day lives, was highlighting inequality across the globe. In response, some turned to a phenomenon known as the ‘Sneakernet’ which provides ‘down to earth’ solutions to poor or no internet access.  Literally the ‘Sneakernet’ is a network that relies on foot power (the power of those in sneakers) to deliver information usually carried by the internet, to places that are often both remote and poverty stricken.

For more on the Sneakernet, who’s involved and all it has and continues to achieve and how, you can listen to the BBC ‘People Fixing the World’ series and an episode called ‘How to put the internet in a box’ available here.

However, the Sneakernet is not the only solution to what is essentially information and it is, in fact, something that is becoming harder to sustain as the capacity of new technology increases and how we use and access information becomes more complex. For more on how the leaps we are making from an innovation standpoint is affecting the ‘down to earth’ Sneakernet solutions see this blog post by Benjamin Bach for Leaning Equality.

According to The Oxford Internet Survey nearly 20 percent of people in Britain use public libraries to access the internet – further details can be found in this article from The University of Oxford. Closed in most countries across the world due to ongoing restrictions, the contemporary role of libraries in terms of the wealth and health of communities is being thrown into sharp relief.

At the Edinburgh International Culture Summit 2020 both Dr Carla Hayden and Ismail Serageldin highlighted the importance of libraries as community hubs and information repositories available to all regardless of economic, cultural or social background. Carla describes libraries as playing ‘an important role in helping fight inequality and polarisation’ and Ismail states that they ‘must always be open spaces of equal access’, and you can watch them discuss this here and here.

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