The international team of scholars behind new research concludes that digital inequalities, defined broadly in terms of people's internet usage, skills and self-perceptions, should be considered as important as the 'traditional axes of inequality' with which we are all familiar: race, class and gender. These new forms of inequalities can of course combine with existing social inequalities -- and even make them worse by 'carrying over pre-existing differences in human capital into online settings'.
As the authors, led by Michael J. Stern of the University of Chicago, write: "It is increasingly clear that individuals' digital engagements and digital capital play key roles in a range of outcomes, from academic performance to labor market success to entrepreneurship to health services uptake. Those who function better in the digital realm and participate more fully in digitally mediated social life enjoy advantages over their digitally disadvantaged counterparts -- a key linkage which social science is only beginning to grasp."
Indeed, rather than decreasing, it appears that forms of digital exclusion are actually increasing. "As the internet is ever more seamlessly integrated in everyday routines, forms of disadvantage themselves mutate," Stern and his colleagues observe.
Among the many examples the authors cite of how life is becoming more challenging for those who aren't 'wired' or confident online, one of the most striking is that of the roll-out of Obamacare in the United States. Despite its website being intended as the primary source of programme information for all Americans, design issues made it difficult to navigate and use for people with slow connections or smartphones; just 1% of the millions of people who visited the site during its first week managed to register.
Throughout this insightful article, Stern and his colleagues illustrate in great detail how 'digital disparities' affect how people find work, build their businesses, shop, access health care, learn, socialise and even reply to consumer or government surveys. From their research, it is clear that being on the wrong side of the 'digital gap' can have significant effects on one's life course and trajectory.
This article is therefore essential reading for anyone set on reducing inequality in our society, including policymakers, social scientists, and with only weeks to go until the general election, even politicians.
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