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The ‘Digital’ Pedagogy of the Oppressed

The ‘Digital’ Pedagogy of the Oppressed

The Digital Divide

It is an undeniable fact that the new ICTs are now virtually everywhere and they are affecting our lives in unprecedented ways. And as almost everything in this world, they have both positive and negative aspects. For the former we can mention the belief and hope that they can help solving the various societal problems within the scope of the international development goals, such as poverty and education to name a few (Heeks, 2018, p.2). For the latter, we can claim that ICTs have done nothing towards a more just society, and in a way, they have even increased inequality (Unwin, 2017a, p.1). In this post we will focus on the negative aspects and the perceived inequalities of ICTs in development (ICT4D), and we will discuss the modern issue of the ‘Digital Divide’, as it is a fact that even today “3,7 billion people, the majority of them women, and most in developing countries, are still offline” (UN, 2021). We argue that we need to reflect on Paolo Freire’s famous book and phrase, ‘The Pedagogy of the Oppressed’, and bring him and his theory in today’s digital reality. By that, we suggest that, today, and in this digitally connected world, we need a rather ‘Digital’ Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Mobile Broad Band 2019

Source: ITU – Measuring Digital Development 2019

After 50 years from the writing of Freire’s modern classic book, unfortunately, within the international development sector, we still talk about tackling the social issue of inequality, and we still have in our globalized societies the social roles of the oppressors and the oppressed. But the bad news is that to this old-school relationships of the oppressors-oppressed that Freire talked about, it was added a new, modern type of social inequality, that is defined by the degree and quality of access of the individual, a social group, or even a nation and a continent to the new ICTs. Additionally, there are also concerns about the degree of digital literacy of the people, or their lack of, which defines their ability to comprehend and use effectively a new technology in order to solve a societal issue. This new form of digital inequality is called ‘The Digital Divide’, and according to Heeks (2018, p.17) it is “the gap between those who has access [to the ICTs] and those who does not”, and it can be found between urban and rural citizens, between developed and developing countries, between educated and uneducated people, and of course between genders (Steele, 2019). Indeed, if we draw again from Heeks, the ‘Digital Poverty’ affects all these people that live in a poor country, while those who take advantage of the benefits of the use of ICTs are mostly “men, younger citizens, ethnic majorities, those without disabilities, and urban dwellers” (Heeks, 2018, p.88).

Gender Gap ICT

Source: ITU – Measuring Digital Development 2019

In that sense, the people that stay behind in this digital (r)evolution, are less privileged than those who are using successfully the new technologies, and thus, this situation makes us understand that the state or process of ‘dehumanization’ that Freire talked about is still relevant. According to Freire (2000, p.44), dehumanization “is not a given destiny but result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turns dehumanizes the oppressed”. In the case of our Digital Divide, we could argue that those who are excluded from the benefits of the use of ICTs, and still face poverty and inequality, have the role of the oppressed, and consequently, the role of the oppressor goes to the stakeholders that design development projects and “think about and implement ICTs policies and practices” (Unwin, 2017a, p.2). In fact, they must be convinced to change their mentalities and ways of thinking and acting within the development sector, in order to allow the world’s poorest and marginalized to be included as beneficiaries of the new technologies (ibid., p.2), and thus to be liberated. Indeed, that is what Unwin (ibid., p.14) claims to be the modern approach that sees ‘development’ only for economic growth, that at the end, it results in even more poverty and inequality, and thus, the dehumanization of the poor. Consequently, that is why the stakeholders of the ICT4D projects, as the decision makers of that type of development, can be seen as the modern Freirian oppressors whose decisions dehumanize the oppressed. Of course, the word ‘violence’, that Freire uses as a unifying force between the oppressors and the oppressed, may raise some readers’ objections, but nevertheless, violence can have many faces, and it does not have only to be a physical one. It can have other forms, like economic, political, and above all, psychological, which can all have material consequences in the lives of the poor.

Furthermore, it is interesting to mention the concept that Heeks (2018, p.90) proposes as the Value Chain dimension of the Digital Divide, that is various categories that the people, for some reasons, fail to use the new ICTs. For instance, the Divide might be a result of the lack of general availability of the technology to an area (Availability Divide). Or it can be the case that the technology it is physically present, but for various reasons, some people or social groups do not have access to it (Accessibility Divide). Continuously, there is the degree of the adoption of an available technology within a society, that can be affected by the individuals’ income (Adoption Divide). And finally, if a technology is available, accessible, and the people adopt it, we can still have a divide in the actual application of it, based, for instance, in gender and other related factors (Application Divide).

With all of the above in mind, and around the modern needs for a Digital Pedagogy of the Oppressed, one could wonder, how can the vast number of people that are unaffected, or even they are affected negatively, by the ICTs become beneficiaries of the technological advances of our modern world? According to Unwin’s (2017a, p.22) critique on the instrumentalist perspective of ICTs, there is no an inherent power to technology that by definition can help the poor and marginalized people. Instead, in order for technology to increase its possibilities to do good and to eliminate the Digital Divide and the related inequalities, there must be a mental change in those who design and develop technological projects in the development sector, be it governments, civic organization etc., to work ‘with’ the poor and not ‘for’ the poor. (Unwin, 2017b, p.3). That fits perfectly with the participatory model as it was expressed and practiced by Freire, and as Tufte (2017, p.23) claims on that regard, the social change could be achieved by implementing approaches in the development field that are bottom-up, and have as a focal point the poor and marginalized citizens by actively listening to them during the whole development processes, from the problem definition, to the designing of the solutions, up to their actual implementation. And that applies also to the use of ICTs in the struggle for social change. Indeed, as Unwin (2017b, p.4) points out on the same Freirian manner, there must be a radical and profound change in the focus and goals of the use of ICTs, that is, away from the economic growth and towards the reduction of the perpetuated modern types of inequality, as the latter are related with the Digital Divide.

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Freire, P., (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. NY, USA: Bloomsbury Academic.

Heeks, R., (2018). Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D). Oxon: Routhledge.

Steele, C., (2019). What is the Digital Divide?. Digital Divide Council. Retrieved 9 October 2021, from

Tufte, T., (2017). Communication and Social Change : A Citizen Perspective. Oxford: Polity Press.

Unwin, T., (2017a). Critical Reflection on ICTs and ‘Development’. In Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

UN, With Almost Half of World’s Population Still Offline, Digital Divide Risks Becoming ‘New Face of Inequality’, Deputy Secretary-General Warns General Assembly | Meetings Coverage and Press Releases. (2021). Retrieved 10 October 2021, from

Unwin, T., (2017b). In the Interests of the Poorest and Most Marginalized. In Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


  1. Stana

    Geiasou Nick!

    Thank you for bringing this issue up. First off, I love some of Freire’s ideas and theories. What I would like to argue against here, are these assumptions that access to the internet and the digital world in a wide sense, would automatically mean that the people with access are not the ‘oppressed’!

    So, you quote Hicks, who says that “the gap between those who have access [to the ICTs] and those who do not”, and “between urban and rural citizens, between developed and developing countries, between educated and uneducated people, and of course between genders.” This, in my opinion, is a sweeping generalization, and I will give the example of China to show that access to the ‘digital’ means little in minimizing oppression. Shenzhen is China’s ‘Silicon valley,’ and is super advanced in terms of digitalization, from QR codes for various IDs, to access to public transport, to healthcare, to payments, you name it. It is a common sight for young men and women to carry two mobiles and a power bank, and they’re literally glued to their devices. So one of my colleagues, who works at the reception, spends all day with her own and the work gadgets. Even though she could access many digital resources to improve her English, because she works with international staff, because better English would mean a better position and better pay, she plays games and watches TicToc instead of learning. A well-off middle-aged man, a senior manager at Huawei, works 6, occasionally 7 days a week, and spends his Sundays sleeping 12+ days, hardly seeing his wife and an only child.

    These are some examples, and I have seen them from the illiterate, traditional Masai in Kenya, to Ghana’s beach boys, across the Middle East all the way to East Asia… the very South we are discussing here – access to the digital world means nothing if it is not accompanied with an education that makes sense of it all. For many of these people, whether extremely poor, lower, or middle class, these gadgets are an escape from their reality into a more beautiful virtual reality.

    Can we confidently say that they are free? Are they not even more oppressed because they are not aware of their oppression, because they abandon human relations and community support they could use to improve their lot, for the virtual escape? So how are they different from you and me? And are any one of us really free, if we know that the entire digital sphere is tightly controlled from a single source? Even if I exclude the cybercriminals lurking from every corner hungry for your money, and your data, to which even the educated in the West fall prey, via romance and bitcoin investment schemes, etcetera.

    1. Nick Papas

      Dear Stana,

      thank you for sharing your thoughts around the topic of the post. You raise very important questions, and you bring in to the table insights from the so-called Global South. Of course, it is not easy to give answers to all of these crucial questions. Maybe, an attempt would be to mention again the Digital Divide’s Value Chain from Heeks, and claim that we should “measure” the quality of the adoption and application of ICTs in a culture or social group. As you mention, it is not enough to just give people access to technology without informing them for the benefits they might have from such an access in ICTs. Nevertheless, one luring question comes to my mind, if a social group, or individuals, decide to use the offered technology only for pleasure, like games or so, who is going to critique their decision?

      Thank you so much!

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