Digital Society

In 2022, the British Academy’s Public Policy team began a programme of work orientated around the theme of Digital Society. This will draw upon expertise in the SHAPE disciplines – through our fellowship, and networks across research, policy, and practice – to inform our understanding of ‘What makes a good digital society?’
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The Digital Society programme builds upon some of our recent work that has laid valuable groundwork for us to develop a workstream in this topic. For instance, the British Academy’s COVID Decade report, which examined the long-term societal impacts of COVID-19, touched upon how existing digital inequalities have impacted communities during the pandemic, and highlighted the value of digital infrastructure for local and hyper-local community responses to COVID-19, and the ways in which digital technologies can be harnessed for the benefit of specific communities during times of hardship. Similarly, some of the Academy’s other recent work has touched upon digital inequality and skills, for instance, our partnership with UCL Public Policy on Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Work, and our Childhood Policy Programme, which touched the impact of digital technologies on children.

The Digital Society programme supersedes and builds upon the Academy’s previous Data and AI programme, which explored how big data, data-driven technologies and artificial intelligence (AI) are changing the way that people live, and how we can harness this change for good. This programme of work included projects on data governance and on the impact of AI on the future of work and challenged us to think about how societies interact with technology, drawing on the expertise of the Academy to answer big questions about the impact of technology on people, cultures, and societies.

Technology and Inequality

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Our first set of major activities in our Digital Society theme focus on technology and inequality. In early 2022, the Government Office for Science asked the British Academy to conduct a project on the topic of technology and inequality to improve our understanding of how government can play a key role in supporting access to, uptake of, and investment in technologies that can be critical to delivering broad public objectives, in a way that ensure inequalities do not become entrenched.

The project is led by a Working Group that includes Professor Helen Margetts FBA (Alan Turing Institute; Oxford Internet Institute), Professor David Hand FBA (Imperial College London), Professor James Nazroo FBA (University of Manchester), and Dr Carrie Heitmeyer (Government Office for Science).

The work will specifically focus on understanding the relationship between digital inequality and existing social inequalities. It will examine how advances in digital technology can mitigate or exacerbate existing inequalities, as well as how existing inequalities pose challenges for access and skills related to digital technology. Insights from this project will inform a review of policy options regarding effective deployment of digital technology to achieve public objectives in the context of complex inequalities.

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