Technology "haves" and "want mores"

Technology was to be the great equaliser. Technology was to deliver the much-hyped level playing field of opportunity for all citizens of the globe. Even a minnow of a country could wire-up its citizenry, teach them how to code in Java, and be pulling in e-business consultancies in no time. End of poverty, end of disadvantage. In Ostraya, our land that lauds the "fair go", this ideal held particular appeal.

Of course, this has been exposed as so much hogwash, and we are now down to the serious business of making money from the Internet - and this most revered pastime rarely respects notions of opportunity for all. Much has been written about the information rich and information poor - the so-called digital divide - some of it wisely pointing out that inequality in access to technology is symptomatic of a broader inequality of wealth, whether it's access to decent drinking water or access to an education infrastructure. Address issues like these and you address any digital divide.

By nature of our wealth, this country's consumers have already passed the technology "have and have not" test. Of course, wealth is relative, but by and large we have affordable access to hardware, software, the Net, and the training tools to learn about them.

I would suggest there is a new lumpy playing field to observe, if not flatten: the divide appearing between the "haves" and the "want mores".

Who would have thought that for some people a fast personal computer, 56Kbps modem, 20GB of storage, a feature-rich browser, plus a scanner and 1400dpi colour printer, could all feel somehow . . . well, unsatisfying. Such people want more and, of course, they can have it. But the question is whether other people miss out if they choose not to do the same.

The new divide can be seen in the provision of bandwidth to the consumer market. As the ISP market splinters into the "free" providers, subsidised by advertisers, and the high-speed providers offering cable and DSL connections, so, too, will consumers split into the users who have three hours a day of free 56Kbps access, and those who pay for the "always on", 400Kbps experience of cable. The sociologists and educators should study the differing effects of permanent high-speed Net access versus the occasional dial-up dip into the Internet. The head of one of the free Internet Service Providers has been quoted as saying: "We want to offer a service for people who need it as a service, not as a life." But what if there is a divide developing that tacitly defines "a life" as educational and social opportunities provided by broadband?

Will the computer users of 10 years hence look back at me tapping away on a Pentium 133 and think, "Wow, he must have really suffered", placing me in some form of information under-class, or will they think (as I do) that that PC does the job, and who needs 1GHz anyway?

Witness also the considerable disappointment expressed in the Olympics wash-up at the lack of information available via the Internet. For some people, overdosing on Channel 7 just wasn't enough. We all know the TV sponsorship deals forbade Internet broadcasting of the Games, but that's not the point - the technology "want mores" knew it was possible to get more than just static score updates and photos, and they wanted it.

It will be interesting to see whether people show any inclination to stop at the "have" stage. "Yes, I have a suitably powerful PC with all the trimmings and as much access to the Internet as I want" - or, as my mother taught me to say after a full meal, "I have had an elegant sufficiency."

One of the most fascinating things I have read this year is some research from UK firm MORI, which concluded that the Internet is a "subject of massive indifference to most [British] people". Stating that the UK is "gripped by the phenomenon of e-apathy", the research showed that 93 per cent of respondents did not want to be a part of the dot-com industry, although the same proportion acknowledged that the Internet is here to stay.

Fear and lack of understanding were not cited as the dominant reasons for opting out, so maybe Britain will lead the world in saying: "No thanks, I'm full."

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MARK STAFFORD

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