Digital technologies, data analytics and social inequality

We were recently involved in organizing a working group on what might be called “digital inequalities” at the Annual Finnish Sociology Conference. Based on the working group, we reflect on the relationship between digital technologies and social inequalities, and on the role of critical scholarship in addressing the issue.

To paraphrase Kranzberg’s (1986) well-known first law of technology, while digital technologies and their capability to produce data are not a force for good or ill, they are not neutral either. With the increasing use of data analytics and new digital technologies, as well as the ever-intensifying hype over them, it is extremely important to examine the connection between technological and social divides

A rich body of research on “digital divides” has focused on the issues of unequal access to technology and differences in its usage (e.g. van Dijk, 2013). With the aim of expanding the view beyond the ideas of access and usage, Halford and Savage (2010) have proposed the concept of “digital social inequality”, emphasizing the interlinking between social disadvantages and digital technologies. This means that the development, use and effects of digital technologies are often related to social categories such as gender, race/ethnicity, age and social class

Examining the divisions connected to the use of data, Andrejevic (2014) points out “the big data divide”, a concept with which he refers to the asymmetric relationship between those who are able to produce and use large quantities of data, and those who are the targets of data collection. This divide highlights not only access to data and the means of making use of data, but also differential access to ways of thinking about and using data. D’lgnazio and Klein (2019) further discuss the power structures inherent in the collection and usage of data, pointing out that these structures are often made invisible and thus taken as an objective viewpoint of how “the numbers speak for themselves”. Through many empirical examples D’lgnazio and Klein demonstrate that even the choices of what topics data is collected on, analyzed and communicated rest on power relations in terms of whose voices and interest are represented and whose are marginalized

Partly inspired by the above-mentioned research, we recently organized a working group at the Annual Finnish Sociology Conference, The Shifting Divides of Our Digital Lives, to discuss old and new forms of inequalities, the reactions they provoke, and their societal consequences. To guide our presenters, we posed some additional questions: What hinders or facilitates equal participation in the digital society? How are social institutions adapting to digital change? What forms of civic engagement and activism arise given digital society’s asymmetries?

Here we summarize selected findings of presentations that provided insights into how digital technologies and the use of data analytics shape our differential opportunities for social participation even when we, as citizens, might not be fully aware of it.

In her presentation Contested technology: Behavior-based insurance in critical data studies, Maiju Tanninen (University of Tampere) pointed out the many concerns that data studies literature has identified in connection to the use of self-tracking technologies in personalized insurance. These include the possibility of data-based discrimination, heightened surveillance, and control of clients’ behavior. However, Tanninen argued that while these critiques paint a rather dystopian picture of the field, they are largely focused on the US context, they fail to differentiate between insurance types, and are often lacking in empirical engagement. In practice, the use of self-tracking devices for the development of personalized insurance looks often doubtful, amongst other reasons due to poor quality of data. Tanninen pointed out that in order for critical research on the topic to be constructive, and to better understand the benefits of these technologies and offer new insights, we need empirically grounded research in the European and more specifically Finnish contexts.

In his presentation Ageing migrants’ use of digitalised public services: Ethnographic study, Nuriiar Safarov (University of Helsinki) emphasized the need for intersectional perspective in studying access and utilization of e-services among different groups of migrants. In his doctoral project, Safarov examines the impact of the digitalization of public services in Finland on the group of older Russian-speaking migrants who permanently live in Finland. Safarov pointed out that this specific group of migrants may face particular barriers to access e-services not only because of their age, but also because of lack of language skills and social networks. Empirical work on such groups can, in turn, offer insight into the interplay of digital-specific and more ‘traditional’ social divides.

In her presentation Facebook Groups interaction affecting access to nature, Annamari Martinviita (University of Oulu) compared a popular Finnish Facebook group on the topic of national parks, and the official information website of Metsähallitus. Martinviita demonstrated that while both platforms might aim to be inclusive when they advertise access and exploration of nature, in practice they might produce various divides by means of presenting and constructing ‘correct’ ways of visiting national parks.

In their presentation Political orientation, political values and digital divides – How does political orientation associate with the political use of social media? Ilkka Koiranen and colleagues (University of Turku) demonstrated that while social media provides new ways for political participation, there are significant differences between political parties in how their supporters use social media for political purposes. The research was based on a nationally representative survey dataset. The results showed that newer political movements with younger and more educated supporters representing post-material values are more successful in social media, echoing also previous findings in the digital divides research.

In his presentation How data activism allies with firms to seek equal participation in the digital society, Tuukka Lehtiniemi (University of Helsinki) discussed the case of MyData, a data activism initiative aiming to enhance citizens’ agency by providing them with the means to control the use of their personal data, in an attempt to address injustices related equal societal participation. Various interest parties are involved in MyData, including technology-producing firms that seek market and policy support for their products. Lehtiniemi argued that particular ways to frame MyData’s objectives are employed to support this involvement. While it is important to develop alternative imaginaries for the data economy, a central question remains to be resolved: how to move from abstract concepts such as citizen centricity and data agency to actual alternatives that challenge dominant imaginaries of data’s value.

These presentations highlight that the promises of equal participation so often associated with digital technologies and use of data analytics are often challenging to reclaim in practice. If approached without care, they may reproduce and extend existing patterns of biases, injustices or discrimination.

Thus, it is important to keep in mind that as digital technologies and data analytics are forged by humans in specific societal settings and power relations, these technologies contain traces of societal conditions in which they are coined and manufactured. Consequently, it is salient to explore what kinds of potentially biased assumptions are embedded in these technologies used so extensively in today’s society. This is why we think that it is urgent to advance critical approaches and support collective citizen actions to create and implement technologies and data analytics that improve opportunities for all

At the same time, as some of the presentations in the working group also indicated, criticism by itself may not lead to constructive input in the development and usage of digital technologies. We should therefore not only point out the ways how digital technologies and data analytics, their current usage, and the potential future trajectories can bring up or exacerbate societal problems. In addition, we should engage in conceptual and empirical research that can help identify preferable alternatives and steer technological developments toward societally more desirable and sustainable ones

By: Marta Choroszewicz, Marja Alastalo and Tuukka Lehtiniemi

Choroszewicz is a Postdoc Researcher at University of Eastern Finland, Alastalo is a University Lecturer at University of Eastern Finland, and Lehtiniemi is a Doctoral Candidate at University of Helsinki.

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References:

Andrejevic, M (2014) The big data divide. International Journal of Communication, 8: 1673–1689. https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/2161

D’lgnazio, C and Klein, L (2019) Data Feminism. MIT Press Open. Available at: https://bookbook.pubpub.org/data-feminism

Halford, S and Savage, M (2010) Reconceptualising digital social inequality. Information, Communication and Society 13(7): 937–955. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2010.499956

Kranzberg, M (1986) Technology and history: “Kranzberg’s laws“. Technology and Culture, 27(3): 544–560. https://doi.org/10.2307/3105385

Van Dijk, JAGM (2013) A theory of the digital divide. In: Ragnedda, M., & Muschert, G. W. (Eds.) The digital divide: The Internet and social inequality in international perspective. Routledge, 36–51.

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