Dec 1, 2018

What's next: How the online world reflects inequality

Illustration of Ben Franklin on a $100 bill wearing VR goggles

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Inequality doesn't end after everyone is connected to the internet, as the online world reflects offline disparities and introduces new factors.

Why it matters: A raft of new evidence shows the rise of the internet itself may have boosted inequality, and that how people use internet access may be just as — or more — important than the access itself.

The research:

  • Educated users with high incomes derive the most benefit from internet use, a 2016 study in Europe showed.
  • The World Bank issued a 2014 report warning that providing internet access on its own would only deepen inequality within and among countries unless governments ensured competitive markets and provided better education.

What's next: Whether closing the digital divide further widens the wealth gap depends on a host of complex factors, according to researchers.

  • Country-by-country comparisons show the pattern unfolds differently depending on the regulatory framework, labor market policies, education policies and more, says Johannes Bauer, a professor of media and information at Michigan State University.
"Some countries and locations have managed to orchestrate such measures well and not seen the dramatic increases in inequality experienced in other places."
— Johannes Bauer

Be smart: Researchers distinguish between measures of "equality of opportunity," which assesses options open to individuals to improve their standing, and measures of "equality of outcomes," which describes the aggregate results of actions and policies. (Go deeper in this piece by the New Yorker's Jill Lepore.)

  • Some observers fear that activists focused on increasing equality of opportunity — i.e. measures to improve access to digital tools — have dropped the ball when it comes to assuring more equitable outcomes.

Yes, but: The role of the internet in promoting inequality changes depending on where you look, as explored in a 2018 paper by Bauer:

  • On a global basis, the impact of tech appears to help level the field.
  • Within wealthier countries, however, more tech often correlates with deepening inequality.

The big picture: The lesson may be to view the fight for access not as an end in itself but rather as one element in a broader campaign to level playing fields.

  • Mark Warschauer, professor of education at UC-Irvine, argues that information technology amplifies the power of "haves" and weakens the under-educated, and the latter can only compete if they're able to use digital tools to develop skills that will help them get better jobs.
  • "Access is not a sufficient condition, but it is a necessary one" for reducing inequality, Warschauer says.
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