Why You Should Care about Information Poverty in the Digital Age

By Kelly Tabbutt

Surely you have heard of the idea of economic poverty. That’s what we traditionally talk about when we talk about poverty…but have you heard of the concept of “information poverty”?

Have you heard of “information poverty”? It refers to limited or utter lack of access to information and can create inequalities in life success, especially when experienced from an early age.

Information poverty refers to limited or utter lack of access to information. As with economic poverty, information poverty experienced in childhood can create inequalities in later life success, as UNICEF writes.

In the internet age, information poverty arises from the unequal access to digital technologies and internet: what’s known as the digital divide. The digital divide is one of the most significant indicators of and barriers to social equality, and it is about much more than just economic poverty.

In this blog, I talk about information poverty, particularly as it relates to the digital divide in internet access. This blog is the first of a two-part series; the second blog examines the role that SciComm can play in addressing this urgent issue. In this first part, you will learn about information poverty and factors that contribute to it. In the second part, I’ll discuss ways you can use SciComm to help bridge the digital divide.

Contributing Factors to Information Poverty

Like economic poverty, information poverty can be absolute or relative. Absolute information poverty means having no access. Relative information poverty means limited access below the local, national, or global average. Relative information poverty arises from and exacerbates structural inequalities in various facets of life including education, work, and well-being.

Rurality and Development

Those in rural areas are more likely to face absolute information poverty. While relative information poverty does exist for segments of urban populations, information infrastructure –specifically, internet infrastructure – is associated with highly developed, or urban areas. Some inequalities in internet infrastructure facing rural communities are the result of environmental barriers like mountain ranges, dense rainforests, or disruptive extreme weather.

However, in most cases, the digital divide and information poverty has more to do with economic poverty and unequal access to technologies, as well as a lack of technological development. Information poverty exists both within and between countries. Between countries, there is a stark divide between the “Global North” and the “Global South,” that is, between wealthy, highly urban, developed regions and poorer, more rural, developing or undeveloped regions. Whether comparing within or between countries, rurality and economic poverty are deeply linked to information poverty.

Economic Poverty

Economic poverty and information poverty are linked. Internet access requires money. It costs money to construct the necessary information technology infrastructure to support internet connectivity at the community and society levels; to pay for technology like smartphones, tablets, or computers, and modems; and to pay for internet access.

At the individual, family, or community-level, even where the infrastructure exists, many cannot afford the necessary technology or subscriptions for access. Local (city or town), national, and international-regional-level poverty can mean communities don’t even have the materials or equipment to construct the basic infrastructure to internet access a possibility, let alone provide the necessary technology like computers or modems.

Thus, the poorest and most rural communities do not even have access to libraries or school computer labs (let alone schools) – features which many in the wealthier, highly urban industrially developed world take for granted.

The Age Gap

Regardless of rurality or poverty, age is another factor in the digital divide and information access gap, particularly for older people. Even where internet infrastructure is highly developed and individuals have the means to purchase the necessary technology and subscriptions, a lack of the computer skills create a significant barrier.

Today, in many countries, it is common to see very young children navigating the internet. In K-12 curriculum, computers classes are commonplace and internet literacy is considered a basic prerequisite for homework. This was not the case for those born before Generation X. For those who grew up before the internet were a household staple, learning these skills can be daunting.

Lack of Information Literacy

Lack of the skills necessary to find and understand information – what’s known as “information literacy” – is one of the greatest contributors to information poverty. Even if the infrastructure and means to internet access exists, people still need the computer skills to find and understand information.

Internet information literacy requires literacy, at least basic computer skills, and at least basic knowledge of the subject being researched. For example, to research political candidates, you must be able to read, know how to use a computer, know how to use the internet, and understand at least the basics of the issues discussed and the role candidates play in the political process.

Tackling Information Poverty by Bridging the Digital Divide

Lack of access to meaningful or useful information can arise from lack of information infrastructure – in this case, lack of internet infrastructure, lack of access to necessary technologies like computers, tablets, or smartphones, lack of relevant information, or lack of the basic skills necessary to find or comprehend information.

In the digital age, standing on the disadvantaged side of the digital divide has a direct relationship with information poverty. The impacts of standing on the “have not” side of the digital divide and being technologically illiterate and information impoverished means more than not being knowing the latest meme; it means being left behind in today’s digital world.

Thanks for reading this post! It’s part one of a two-part blog series on information poverty and the digital divide. You can also read part two, in which I discuss actionable steps to tackle information poverty via SciComm.

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