Bridging the Digital Divide

Welcome to the aftermath of the old economy. In the race between Europe's new 'just-in-time, 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week' super-states, we are in danger of losing our ability to manage the expectations of an increasingly wired society. Technology can help fulfil our ambitions, but it doesn't do much for people who can't afford ambition.

A warning comes from the heart of the internet revolution, the US. A Gartner Group report has found that a whole generation of up to 50 million Americans could become 'functionally illiterate' in the future due to a lack of knowledge of, or access to, the internet.

Gartner found that just 35 per cent of adults in the lower-socio-economic-status bracket had internet access, compared with 53 per cent in the lower-middle, 79 per cent in the upper-middle, and 83 per cent in the top bracket.

The report identified three digital divides: access to the internet; a skills gap between those who know how to benefit from the internet and those who don't; and speed of access to the internet.

As the posturing over cheap, unmetered internet access continues, and the availability of broadband (ADSL & cable) increases, a danger exists that this third divide - between those with high-speed access and those without - may leave non-metropolitan areas disadvantaged.

In many respects this threat mirrors the socio-economic gaps in PC ownership today and raises the unacceptable prospect of second-class access to the information super-highway. In Brit-ain, where a quarter of homes are believed to have access to the internet, one can sit comfortably inside the well-connected embrace of the M25 and imagine the benefits of the new dot-communism reaching equally in all directions. But look less than a hundred miles into the South East, as far as Margate perhaps, and the gap between new- and old-economy imagination and aspiration starts to resemble a chasm.

Where does one draw the line between one industrial era and another? Is the criterion for an advanced information society really as simple as counting the number of electronic messages that pass between individuals and companies? According to the latest government-sponsored survey, 27 per cent of UK businesses are now using the internet. Scotland leads, with 29 per cent of companies trading online. But compare these figures with private-sector research. Although Ministers claim that the UK is on a par with Germany, the US and Sweden, PricewaterhouseCoopers recently announced that Germany was leading Europe in online transactions.

Uncomfortable facts of early twenty-first century life are that we live in a time of profound and complex change in a global economy constantly pursuing the highest profits and lowest transaction costs and that the remains of our manufacturing base is increasingly moving overseas. Unskilled Indonesians may pack processors for a few dollars a day, but a skilled European information worker can command more than £50,000 a year. Between these two extremes, and in every industrial society, there are populations who are too poor and unskilled to share in the new affluence; whose opportunities are increasingly restricted by economic and political forces outside their control.

Throughout Europe, governments are anticipating a long-term devastation of the retail and public sector workforce caused by 'disintermediation': the elimination of the middleman by the arrival of the 'just-in-time' forces of information and communications technology (ICT). But the forces of progress carry the seeds of their own acute skills crisis. No single nation has a large enough pool of information-literate workers available to sustain the rapid growth in the global networked economy.

The Institute of Directors has 50,000 members from across the old and new economy spectrum. For many, commercial ambition is increasingly constrained by the people factor. While optimism remains high, ICT employment costs are spiralling, and in the absence of a silicon-savvy workforce any vision of economic utopia appears increasingly distant. Understandably, Professor Jim Norton, the IoD's director of e-business development, believes human capital is our ultimate resource. 'Bridging the digital divide and enfranchising all of our population in the e-economy must be the Government's top priority,' he says.

In the race to wire UK society into the internet, the Government has a vision, a budget and an initiative. The UK Online project, directed by Department for Education and Employment Minister Michael Wills, has set itself the ambitious target of full digital emancipation within five years. A new research centre is to be created to investigate the impact of new technology and will lead the efforts to end the so-called digital divide before it becomes a problem of acute social exclusion.

Facing the prospect of a lost generation, how do governments plan to re-engineer the workforce to meet the demands of a global networked economy?

Wills sees the UK Online project meeting the challenge, with two core priorities. 'First, the internet revolution isn't happening for everyone. Every person has the right to access and participate in these technologies. Second, we need to make sure that we have the right skills base. Alongside this comes another range of priorities; the right use of ICT in schools and communities. In the medium to long term, we have to close the skills gap in society. In the short term, and like every OECD country, we have a shortage of people with the right skills, and we have to tackle this head on and in a variety of ways.'

In Wills' opinion: the principal challenges that governments need to address urgently are hardware, software and connectivity. 'The danger of a "third-divide" appearing is enormously important, which is why we are encouraging the widest kind of competition from telecommunications carriers. While we have a quite well developed cable industry, government needs to immediately target the danger of rural deprivation, and we wish to find innovative ways of reaching disadvantage and deprivation. The truth is that in 20 years we will have got there - but we have to get there quicker than that.'

While nobody would doubt that the Prime Minister's own commitmentto rapid action, investment and education are a vital first step in devising a strategy to address a growing skills deficit, there is a harsher macro-economic big picture to consider. Do we in Europe have, like the Americans, a lost generation of our own, a thirtysomething workforce intel lectually and emotionally unprepared for the changes and challenges ahead?

The new 'knowledge economy' will be a harsh environment for the common man. While a universal grasp of and access to ICT will emancipate more people in the device space of the web, one must question whether UK Online can deliver a central part of its vision in time. Can it swiftly produce the army of skilled and educated experts required to run tomorrow's new economy today?

Observer Newspaper (Sunday October 22, 2000)

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