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The Global Village

I had to visit my nearest Post Office the other day. Invariably, this is an experience I try to avoid; as I’m sure do other people. The dull monotony of waiting for the person in front to finish buying a book of stamps before one’s hope is dashed, as she reveals a large brown paper parcel and asks: “How many stamps do I need to send a ten kilo package to my aunt in Abyssinia”?

The Post Office is of course, a wonderful example of how much time wasting is involved with simple beaurocracy and how great swathes of paperwork and rubber-stamping could be replaced by kiosks and eGovernment, such as the form that entitles us, as UK citizens, to medical treatment in other EEC states. Why on earth isn’t this available on-line I wonder or does the Post Office cashier’s little rubber stamp on top of my National Insurance number represent the equivalent of the digital signatures that we still don’t have?

What was really interesting in my local Post Office on this occasion was the sudden appearance of nine PC’s propped along the back wall. UK Online had arrived in SW19 and there was little doubt that the availability of Internet was a big hit but not with the locals as you might have thought.

Each workstation, from what I could see, as I moved slowly down the queue was being used for mail, predominantly Hotmail, by what were very obviously young people visiting from elsewhere in the global village. No silver surfers, no single mothers, no minorities and in fact, nobody even faintly close to the group that I thought the initiative had in mind.

What’s just as interesting from my point of view is the choice of PC’s on an Ethernet, over some kind of hardened kiosk-style environment protected by Robocop. Call me a cynic if you like, but how long are these machines going to last I wonder, in what is, after all, one of the harshest environments known to computing, unrestricted public access.

So while on the one hand, I’m in favour of making the Internet available to anyone in Post Offices, libraries, churches and mosques, I’m concerned, like anyone else in IT, that you can’t simply throw thousands of units into the public domain and expect them to survive longer than a year, in the process, delivering for the general population what was expected of them in the first place.

Now, having been involved with the idea since the day that Professor Jim Norton and I discussed its pros and cons on television, I should understand why we’re doing this and what we expect the end result of this huge national investment to be. Three years on and SW19 has a ‘Wired’ Post Office but do nine PCs make a difference and if so, where and to who? I’m not sure I know the answer and I’m not sure that those who should know are certain either!

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