To use or to be able to use? That is the question: a critical blog using the capabilities approach to rethink digital inequalities
By Maya Ljubojevic
The onset of the pandemic triggered a new phase of digital interaction. This has inadvertently highlighted vast inequalities in the sphere of the digital in almost all contexts. With almost half of people having no access to the internet in an increasingly digitised world, it is vital to understand and rethink digital inequalities (DI).
Monetary costs associated with digital life are apparent - from the costs of data to the costs of technology such as computers and phones. Those in poverty or on lower incomes are often ‘left behind’. Monthly, one gigabit of data costs nearly 40% of the wage in sub-Saharan Africa. However, there are more nuanced issues of DI.
Whilst Sen (2010) may state that technology is generally a freedom-enhancing good, his capabilities approach (CA) can aid further understanding of core DI issues. The CA focuses on people’s freedom to achieve well-being, and for that well-being to be understood in the sense of a person’s capabilities. Well-being is intrinsic in discourses surrounding inequality. The lack of freedom surrounding one’s actions and opportunities - capabilities - would have a major impact on one’s well-being. The CA therefore helps to rethink issues of DI as an issue of rights, freedoms, and processes rather than end results (Robeyns and Morten, 2021).
Despite potentially all facilities and means being available, individuals and groups may not have the freedoms to utilise these means. On paper, an individual may have the infrastructure to access digital platforms; however, there may be factors preventing the actualisation of potential and freedom to work; such as digital literacy levels, disability (Johansson et al., 2021), or gender inequalities. This negative liberty outlook – the perceived absence of obstacles - is commonplace and undermines the issues of DI in political, economic, and social spheres. The CA’s positive liberty outlook (Abadeer, 2015) challenges the status-quo mindset and allows for a rethink of issues such as DI; coming from a perspective of having the freedom to do rather than perceived freedom from obstacles.
Ideas surrounding prevention of DI may focus too heavily on provisions, rather than ensuring that these provisions are usable by those who may need them – provision of better access is one issue, providing the tools and resources needed to become digitally literate is another altogether.
DI affects people across demographic spectrums. Those with disabilities may have access to internet and technology but may not have the physical freedoms to use resources designed for able-bodied people. G20 acknowledge that insufficient attention has been paid to digital literacy worldwide. Globally women are 23% less likely to use mobile internet. Discourses of rights and freedoms to the digital within DI are becoming more topical with the rise of digital authoritarianism. This means despite some barriers being overcome in terms of economic capabilities, not all barriers to utilisation are removed.
DI is a relatively new issue in the sphere of development yet is already deeply embedded within most global social fabrics. The digital is a double-edged sword - enhancing freedom for ‘most’, excluding a significant ‘some’.
Abadeer, A.S.Z. (2015) ‘The Capability Approach and Gender Discrimination’, In: Norms and Gender Discrimination in the Arab World, Palgrave Macmillan: New York, https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137395283_4
Johansson, S., Gulliksen, J. and Gustavsson, C., (2021) ‘Disability digital divide: the use of the internet, smartphones, computers and tablets among people with disabilities in Sweden’, Universal Access in the Information Society, 20(1), pp.105-120.
Robeyns, I., and Morten F.B. (2021), ‘The Capability Approach’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available at <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/capability-approach/#Background>, accessed 26/10/21
Sen, A. (2010) ‘The Mobile and the World’, Information Technologies and International Development, 6(special issue), pp. 1–3.
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