Digital skills are key for people to participate and have an impact in society

In today’s digitalising societies, digital skills give people power by affording them the opportunity to participate as active citizens. People in vulnerable positions but with good digital skills participate in society more actively than other disadvantaged people, and they do it online, argues a leading digitalisation researcher, Professor Ellen Helsper from London School of Economics.

On June 3, 2021, Helsper gave a keynote in an online research workshop on digital exclusion, an aspect of wider social inequality that is more widespread than many people realise. The workshop, titled Digital ex­clu­sion: Con­cep­tual and meth­od­o­lo­gical ap­proaches, was organized by INEQ and the DigiIN project. The keynote was based on Helsper’s recent book The Digital Disconnect – The Social Causes and Consequences of Digital Inequalities (2021).

According to Helsper, digital exclusion is cumulative: combining factors that strengthen and maintain social inequality, also strengthen and maintain digital exclusion. People with better socio-economic status are less likely to become digitally excluded because they tend to have better access to digital tools and connections, better digital skills and generally better possibilities to have an impact in society. The state also has an important role. In countries with broader freedom of expression, digital political empowerment is stronger, Helsper argues. 

Moreover, education is dependent on the availability of tools: if people do not have access to necessary tools, they cannot access education materials and enhance their skills either. Thus, instead of focusing only on educating people on how to use technology, Helsper argues it is also important to focus on how people actually use different digital appliances and what skills they truly need. 

Helsper also reminds us that people in different age groups and countries use digital appliances in very different ways, and that cultural context has a role in determining whose voice gets heard; in public debate the experiences of the wealthy and highly educated often dominate over the disadvantaged. However, Helsper believes that culture can be changed through education and by increasing awareness among the socio-economically more privileged on social and digital inequalities. 

Different disciplines, institutions, researchers and working professionals have different views on how social and digital inequalities are intertwined. Helsper stresses that stopping the deepening of inequality and building a more just digital future is possible only by cooperation.

You can watch the full keynote by professor Helsper in Inequality Talks

This article is based on previously published news by the DigiIN project (in Finnish).