Bridging the digital divide

Richard Alston's statement about the information economy was unambiguous: "Unless you are connected then you are clearly not able to enjoy the benefits and the prosperity that are there."

The Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts was addressing a hall full of delegates attending a large computing trade show in Sydney. It would be a fair bet that everyone who heard him speak that day had their feet firmly planted on the right side of the digital divide.

Being on the wrong side is not a good look and the minister acknowledged that, saying, "We are working on solutions for the digital divide; solutions which will bring remote and rural, and lower income, Australians into the information loop."

The National Office of the Information Economy has, since its inception, been exploring the digital divide: how it develops, who it affects, what its effects are and how can it be overcome.

It notes that although the uptake of the Internet has been rapid in Australia, almost seven out of 10 homes still do not have Internet access. In a survey of 100 young people granted legal aid to come before the Children's Court in NSW last year, the situation was even bleaker - only one in five homes had Internet access.

There are quite clear links between income levels, education, disabilities and ethnic background, and the uptake of modern technology. Overwhelmingly, NOIE notes that "Australian adult Internet users tend to be younger, male, earning in excess of $75,000, employed, and living in metropolitan areas".

If Australia is to reap the full reward of the information economy and global connections, then all Australians need to be able to access and use the Internet regardless of sex, background or income. It is particularly the case for young people for whom computers are not a newfangled imposition on the old way of doing business, but the only way to do business.

Young people who attempt to enter the work force without computer skills will be just as unemployable as those who cannot read or write.

Already, a series of national, state and territory initiatives are under way that are aimed at narrowing the divide, if not completely bridging it. These initiatives have included, for example, education and awareness programmes, creation of telecentres in remote or regional centres, and subsidising Internet access in public libraries.

They have had limited success, since the digital divide persists. Its persistence in remote and rural Australia can be partly explained by the old tyranny of distance argument, but it also persists in urban centres, where Internet access is reasonable in libraries, schools and Internet cafes.

It persists not because of any anti-technology stance: regardless of income, it would be rare to find a city home today without a television, a telephone and even a mobile phone. Technology, when it is perceived to offer some value, is embraced and afforded. What is holding people back is that they have yet to recognise that value in the Internet.

Two giants in the game of "getting consumers to want something" are Microsoft and Coca Cola. Earlier this year they collaborated with the Inspire Foundation (an Internet-based charity) to launch the Beanbag net centres project. That initiative will see the establishment of 10 youth-friendly locations in disadvantaged communities in capital cities across Australia, where free Internet access and support will be available. The first two Beanbag centres are being set up at Marrickville Youth Resource Centre and Traxside Youth Health Service in Campbelltown.

The Inspire Foundation was established in 1996 to "use the Internet to inspire young people, foster generosity and build community".

It has developed a couple of programmes focussed on providing access in regional Australia (for example the Reach Out! Bush Network programme which is installing 40 computers in 20 locations, and then teaching 100 people how to use them in the hope that they will then spread their skills around their community), but the Beanbag project is its first urban initiative.

Once young people are encouraged to explore and enjoy the Internet in a non-threatening environment such as a youth centre, without the local librarian breathing down their necks and tut tutting over their selection of Web sites, then they may start to see the value in being connected.

They will bridge the divide, and conquer.

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