In 2021, the Digital Society Program of the National Agency for Territorial Cohesion (ANCT), launched a consultation for the production of a report on the state of the art of the French digital society. The Centre de Recherche pour l'Étude et l'Observation des Conditions de Vie (CRÉDOC) and the Centre de Recherche sur l'Education, les Apprentissages et la Didactique de l'Université de Rennes (CREAD), associated with the GIS M@rsouin, have been entrusted with the production of this report. For this first edition, the ANCT chose to focus on the definition of digital distance, the comparative analysis of its different measures, and the identification of the main associated factors.
The present article aims to synthesize this work.
The concept of digital capability, a paradigm shift to define digital distance
Initially, since the 1990s, digital distance has been defined through the prism of access to technologies (giving rise to the concept of the "digital divide"), then through that of skills (giving rise to the concept of "digital literacy"). While these approaches can be useful in providing an overview of the diffusion of digital technologies and skills in society, they are only a partial way of analyzing the phenomenon of digital alienation.
Moving away from a dichotomous view of digital inequalities
Over the last decade, a new generation of research has focused on the unequal possibilities of individuals to transform the opportunities (cultural, economic, social, political, etc.) offered by digital technologies into effective benefits. In this way, this work has made it possible to reverse the traditional angle of approach, centered on the lack (of access, of skills), in order to focus on the contribution of technologies for individuals. It is on this basis that the concept of " digital capability " has emerged. Capabilities are the set of actions that an individual has the power to implement and the set of states that he or she can effectively reach in order to increase his or her well-being and promote his or her power to act. This concept thus makes it possible to define digital distance beyond a dichotomous vision of digital inequalities (users/non-users; Internet users/non-Internet users). For, although the use of digital technologies is a priori likely to improve the well-being of individuals, not all individuals are in a position to derive the same benefits from digital technologies. Indeed, various studies have emphasized that the enabling or disabling nature of digital technologies is in fact greatly conditioned by the conditions of existence and the level of digital capital of individuals. Digital capital is made up of all the resources that an individual can mobilize to promote his or her digital capabilities. This key notion, which is based on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, helps to explain the unequal distribution of capabilities among individuals.
The digital distance is explained by socio-economic and cultural factors
Misuse of age
Age is a well-known variable in digital alienation; older people are generally perceived as having the most difficulty with digital technologies, while, conversely, younger people are often considered experts. However, age is in no way an explanatory factor for digital alienation, at most it is a descriptive factor. If people aged 70 or more have a higher than average share of non-Internet users, it should be noted, on the one hand, that this age group is the one with the largest number of people without any diploma (who did not experience the school massification in their youth) and on the other hand, that these people discovered the Internet late in their lives (they did not benefit from a primary socialization or a professional socialization around new technologies). This generational effect explains the gap observed with the "young retirees" (more than 60% of the 60-69 year olds are connected) and is demonstrated by the evolution of the share of non-Internet users over time in different age groups. Concerning the youngest age group, it should first be noted that the proportion of people who are far from the digital world remains high: nearly 20% for those under 25 years old. Moreover, several studies show that the digital skills and practices of young people are differentiated, heterogeneous and, above all, unequal, insofar as they depend on very different social contexts. Age is therefore often misused to identify or exclude populations that are at risk of being alienated from the digital world.
Social background and level of education, key factors of understanding
As the age variable shows, the identification of people who are far from the digital world cannot be done without taking into account social and cultural factors. Socio-economic category is a traditional variable of digital inequalities, which tends to show that people from modest backgrounds are both more distant from the digital world and more distant from the written word in terms of digital practices. It also appears to be closely linked to the " cultural " variable , since the most socio-economically advantaged individuals are generally those who also have the greatest amount of cultural capital. In other words, in connection with the concept of digital capability (see above), these groups are more likely to derive concrete benefits from their use of digital technologies. Numerous studies demonstrate the major role played by these factors in explaining digital distance. First of all, digital practices are socially situated. Indeed, in addition to the fact that individuals who occupy the most advantageous social positions in society generally have better access to digital resources, they also have a more diversified repertoire of practices (e.g., school, professional contexts, etc.) than individuals from modest backgrounds, who are more likely to use digital resources more for entertainment purposes. Moreover, the place of the written word is a determining factor in the differentiated practices of digital technologies. Low-income groups, especially those without diplomas, are distant from it and devalue this form of exchange in favor of face-to-face interaction, even going so far as to adopt practices that make it possible to bypass the use of the written word. Thus, for example, the dematerialization of administration exposes low-income families to digital practices that prove to be complex for them, which may explain the phenomenon of non-use of the law in these environments. More specifically, in order to explain digital alienation, other recent studies show a clear correlation between a low level of appropriation of digital technologies and a low level of cultural capital among individuals. These studies emphasize the existence of significant differences in the appropriation of digital tools and practices, even within low-income groups, between individuals with diplomas and those with few or no diplomas, attesting to the central role played by the cultural capital of individuals. Since the 2000s, as part of the massification of access to higher education, we have witnessed the emergence of a public, particularly from modest backgrounds, which has a level of university certification without being able to find a job that corresponds to this certification. The consequence is the emergence, within the modest categories, of publics sharing the same social background but differing in terms of degree level (and therefore in terms of accumulation of cultural capital). The results of the Digital Barometer (2022) support these analyses: people without diplomas are much less likely to be Internet users than people with a diploma at least equivalent to the baccalaureate. The proportion of non-Internet users among the former is nearly 40%, and less than 10% among the latter. In summary, if the interrelation between the different factors mentioned invites us to consider them as often interdependent, the level of diploma (and more broadly the cultural capital) appears to be a preponderant factor to explain the digital distance within the French population.
Quantifying digital distance in France
Three survey systems have been used to quantify digital remoteness in France: INSEE's household survey on the use of information and communication technologies, the Capacity and then Capuni surveys conducted by the GIS M@rsouin, and the Digital Barometer commissioned by the French regulatory authority for electronic communications, post and press distribution (Arcep), the General Economic Council (CGE) and, more recently, the French regulatory authority for audiovisual and digital communication (Arcom). Designed independently, these three surveys are based on sometimes divergent methodological approaches and offer different measures of digital distance. However, three main categories of indicators emerge from these surveys to measure digital distance: by equipment (physical distance to digital), uses and skills. Regarding the equipment approach, analysis of the most recent surveys highlights the ubiquity of equipment, including the Internet connection, in French society. This widespread availability limits the interest in focusing on the issue of digital remoteness through this prism (even if the difficulties of access to equipment are clearly obstacles to digital practices). The usage-based approach, on the other hand, comes up against the rapid evolution of usage possibilities due to the diffusion of new technologies, as shown for example by the adoption of instant messaging on cell phones or video calls in recent years. Finally, the skills-based approach is classically based on a restrictive logic of digital distance, associated with well-defined nomenclatures that sometimes lack nuance. It should be noted, however, that the subjective skill level declared leads to a much broader vision of digital distance.
Update on the number of people who are not digitally literate
The analysis of these three categories of indicators allows us to propose a two-stage perspective on the quantification of digital distance, in order to account for the diversity of situations and practices:
- In terms of usage, not being an Internet user is the first measure of distance from the digital world. The latest edition of the Digital Barometer (2022) updates this measure: 8.8% of the population aged 18 and over is now non-Internet users in France (i.e. 4.5 million people). In line with previous work, we propose to use this definition to measure digital non-users. Despite its limitations, this definition has the advantage of being relatively simple to measure, and of having been included in surveys for many years. It therefore provides the historical perspective necessary for a proper understanding of the phenomenon of digital exclusion.
- Then, we propose to retain an indicator based on the ease felt in the realization of digital tasks to build one or several groups of Internet users more or less distant from the digital world. This subjective measure makes it possible to describe the difficulties of certain populations that are nevertheless users of digital tools. It also avoids the need to update the list of digital skills required for good use of the tools. In 2022, according to the Digital Barometer data, the proportion of Internet users who do not feel competent in using the Internet is 22.9% (or 11.5 million people).
According to this broad approach to digital distance, 31.5% of the population aged 18 and over living in mainland France are currently digitally excluded (i.e. 16 million people). Any comparison with the now fetishized figure of 13 million digitally excluded people from the 2017 Capacity survey would lead to biased interpretations. Indeed, the Capacity survey, conducted 6 years earlier, adopted a more restrictive logic of digital distance, as mentioned in the previous section. Moreover, it would be wrong to consider that a decrease or an increase in the proportion of people who are digitally isolated is strictly linked to the effect of public policies in France. Indeed, this would be tantamount to denying the impact of international macro-economic factors, which should be addressed, at least, at the European level, as well as the positive impact that the continuous improvement of online platforms could have in terms of increasingly intuitive interfaces.
Digital distance, a social phenomenon
As we have just seen, while there are several definitions of digital remoteness, each of which represents a different dimension of the phenomenon, it is important to avoid any binary vision of inclusion and exclusion, which has the major drawback of making the diversity of situations and practices invisible. In this respect, the concept of digital capabilities (see above) is enlightening, since it allows us to focus on the capacity of individuals to take advantage of digital technologies. Moreover, this vision, which is better able to take into account the contexts in which the various forms of digital alienation take place, makes it possible to restate the issue of digital inclusion on its social basis, since the enabling or disabling nature of digital technologies is in fact largely conditioned by the conditions of existence of individuals. In particular, we need to take better account of the cultural (particularly the level of education) and digital capital of individuals, which analysis shows to be central both in the relationship with technologies and in the development of differentiated digital practices. Based on this observation, it is also appropriate to relativize the relevance of an overly general assessment of the number of people who are far from the digital world. Indeed, instead of looking for a precise number of digital outsiders, which seems meaningless, it would be preferable to represent the phenomenon in the form of a halo that would allow us to consider individuals as more or less remote from the digital world, depending on the subjective expectations and needs they formulate.
Thus, digital distance can no longer be considered as a simple technical or quantitative issue : it is primarily a social phenomenon. Taking this phenomenon into account in its complexity and heterogeneity opens up important perspectives for the construction of digital inclusion policies that are differentiated according to the public and the territories.