Poverty and technology in flanders (2006)
New technological tools are aimed at making life easier. From time to time, however, we all experience personally how this can turn out differently. So, what to say then about people who live in poverty? Poverty and technology tend to reinforce each other. People in poverty have less ‘new technologies’ than the average citizen; they have les access to technology and make less use of it. This study focuses on the chances and barriers, by letting people who live in poverty speak for themselves.
If people who live in poverty will actually start to use or even buy technology depends upon several circumstances, not only on the side of the user but also factors belonging to the social context or characterizing the product itself. Some of these factors are: interest; mental barriers; material resources; physical capacity; writing, reading and calculating skills; instrumental, structural and strategic skills; education level; (positive) experiences with technological applications; early introduction. Under context, we make a distinction between the institutional context (material inaccessibility and social thresholds) and the cultural context (how the social environment people are living in determines their attitude and their way of thinking and acting, also with respect to new technologies). Finally, there is the product itself, whose acceptance is also strongly determined by its price, the complexity of the device, its compatibility (with other equipment people already possess), testability (the idea of a testing period) and its relative benefit (over other alternatives, whether they are technological or not).
Under “People in poverty”, we also distinguish different types of technology users. Non-users hardly make any use of new technologies; selective users use some technologies to a certain extent and only for certain purposes; and the rather sophisticated users find the use of technology only natural. They use it intensively and in various ways.
Now, which are the reasons people in poverty themselves bring forward for the fact that the introduction of new technologies passes by certain (categories of) people ?
Sometimes people do not even know that certain technologies exist, due to a lack of information in the first place. They also feel too little informed about where to buy which products. And what has been said about the purchase of technology, equally applies to the (training in) the use of technology : where to ask which questions ?
Some people are interested in technology and willing to use or the buy it. Others cannot be convinced to use technology. One of the reasons for that is the limited benefits they attribute to it, poor people as well as others. But on top of that, people who live in poverty do have rather different priorities. Their priorities often reside in their daily survival, rather than in (learning) how to use technologies.
In the most diverse domains of their life, people are almost constrained to use technology : in education, on the labour market, in health care and through advertising. By all means, people in poverty feel rather powerless when confronted with that kind of social pressure. Even without extra pressure they experience great difficulties not to be shaken off anyway. The pressure then tends to have an opposite effect. Their technology aversion will only grow stronger.
The limited budget of many people in poverty makes the technological society inaccessible. The high cost involved with the purchase, maintenance and use of technological applications is a serious obstacle. What strategies do people in poverty today adopt to find a way out ? They reject technology or they try to spend their budget rationally buying (some) technology or they use technology on loan (from family members, friends, acquaintances).
People in poverty often do not know how to use technology. They generally consider it to be too complicated and they often feel not to have enough information. There is also too little communication with the technology providers (manufacturers, resellers). Even the information technological equipment and services are coming with is too complicated. Most people detest manuals and user guides because of the small print and the odd language, provided they are written in Dutch at all. The general discontent of people in poverty also has to do with the absence of involvement in the design and development of new technologies.
The solutions they adopt are ignoring technology and informal training (through family members, friends and acquaintances) or formal training (a professional mediator, courses, education centre). However, not every poor man or woman will find the way to the existing technology training offer. There may be several reasons for that: the cost involved with it, a lack of information about what to follow and where, difficulties to get accepted due to long waiting lists, fear to have lessons in a classical group situation and being frightened by the supposedly high level (even the most basic courses).
Nevertheless, there are some examples of the opposite situation: for certain people in poverty, technology precisely constitutes a means of acquiring extra knowledge and skills. It offers the possibility to find information on the Internet, to learn to read, write and calculate by using a computer, etc.
Not having access to technology leads to further exclusion, which subsequently ends in negative feelings: the impression of being unable to keep up or of being kept out; fear of (failure); indifference towards (new) developments; fear for the future; stigmatization; feeling of inferiority; shame; impotence and anger; and the sentiment of not being heard.
On the positive side, for some people in poverty, there is the fact that technology stimulates their social integration and improves their living conditions in several ways. They have more social contacts; more training opportunities, enabling them to extend their knowledge and competences. Basic skills they were not able to learn at school and in the schoolish way, might be more easily assimilated through innovative learning methods. The ability to use technology makes it easier to find a position on the job market. The access to health care is simplified through health technologies. Technology makes life more comfortable, e.g. preventing us from having to keep all kinds of data for taxation purposes. People are better informed about their “rights” if they have access to all kinds of sites (for poor people). As stated above for the negative consequences, the positive aspects too lead to positive feelings: self-confidence, independence and the ability to manage and speak for oneself.
Simply put, there are poor people who have and others who do not have access to new technologies, the latter obviously being the largest number. Many of the thresholds people in poverty meet, when being introduced or trying to get acquainted with new technologies also apply to other people, but poor people in most cases will be confronted with a combination and accumulation of several of those thresholds. The number of benefits for who overcomes the threshold(s) is limited to those who gained access: more social contacts, new training methods, information warehouses...
The properties of (new) technologies are often flatly opposed to the characteristics of a life in poverty: financial limitations versus high cost, low education level versus complexity of the technology, etc. This tension generates a certain social pressure in several areas of the social life, which explains why many poor people associate technology with negative consequences and feelings.
In a last stage of the study, people in poverty and stakeholders put forward certain recommendations for policymaking and action. Besides a number of rather general suggestions (such as sensitization, better information and protection against aggressive and deceiving advertising), we also listed proposals that focus on poverty. There should for instance be sufficient technological facilities within an easily accessible environment (organizations, service and advice centres), where people in poverty meet and pass by. For a good maintenance of the technology, the warranty should apply to all the components of a device. There is a need for more repair workshops for defective equipment, for simpler appliances and easier installation and user guides. There has also been warned against the stigmatizing effects of certain well-intended measures, for instance offering children from poor families computer facilities after school hours. Finally, there has also been argued in favour of maintaining the choice between using information technology or not, at school, for banking purposes, when buying tickets...
These more specific ideas fit perfectly well within the general framework that has subsequently been put forward by the authority that commissioned the study: improve the accessibility (training, repairing and internet access as points of particular interest), enhance the role of education (the importance of equal opportunities with respect to ICT) and remove the (social) pressure to buy and handle technology.