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Digital divide? What digital divide?
People who don't use computers are doing so by their own choice
Written at the IoD in London, edited on the London-Ipswich train and dispatched to silicon.com a day later from a coffee shop in Woodbridge, Suffolk which provided free wi-fi and great coffee
Seminal experiences seem to have come thick and fast in my life with some good and some not so good. This past week saw three in quick succession: one at a public lecture, one in a meeting with those of a politically correct bent and one in my local supermarket. And all three concerned the availability of IT.
Experience One came about during the Q&A session at the end of a public lecture by a visiting American IT manager. His presentation had been enlightening in terms of painting a picture of where we had come from, where we were and where we are going with IT and mobile working across numerous academic, technology, commercial and social fields.
So here comes the first question - and it was a cracker! "My wife hates computers and IT and won't have a PC in our home. What are you going to do for her?"
I felt myself squirming with embarrassment. What must our visitor have thought? 'Only in the UK', I suspect. And I have to confess, the words - 'let her die' (metaphorically you understand) - just popped into my head.
Experience Two was in the middle of a meeting with a group who clearly had a strong social conscience. Well it didn't take long to get to the $64,000 question: what about the digital divide? The 'have PCs' and the 'have no PCs'? Those with broadband and those without? My immediate reaction was - what divide? I see no divide! In the first world, everyone can get access to a PC if they need or want to. Surely any divide is now a self-inflicted injury!
Experience Three was really unexpected. There on the shelves of my local supermarket were lines of boxed-up PCs with LCD screens, plus printers and scanners, for £295. And right along the shelf were laptops at just £335. These weren't poor quality either. They were top of the line, a well-known international brand, with very respectable specifications - machines more than adequate for school, home and most small businesses.
I know people who don't own a car. I know people who don't own a television set. I know people that never fly on aircraft. I even know people who don't own a mobile phone. It's not that they couldn't - they have the money but they have made a choice. They don't want these things in their life. And guess what, most are people who don't have computers and/or broadband either. For one reason or another they have opted out of specific technologies and activities.
Years ago, when PCs cost over £2,000, a digital divide through sheer cost was obviously a very real problem. Even at £1,000 it could be a justifiable claim. But not when a PC costs less than most flat panel TVs, washing machines and dishwashers. We are now well into the era of commodity (or even who cares?) computing.
The UK now has PCs and games machines in well over 90 per cent of homes and broadband access recently passed 50 per cent. So those who have opted out are in a growing and insignificant minority. Should we worry about them? I think that time is long past! You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink.
Throughout the UK PCs are everywhere and freely available. Public libraries and a lot of cafés have machines for casual use at a very low cost or free. Schools, community centres and church halls run regular IT starter courses for the uninitiated of any age. And every community has volunteers ready, willing and able to help anyone struggling with the technology. So there really is no excuse for not opting in, and opting out must therefore be a determined decision. People just don't want to join in, so why waste time money and facilities, or even a moment's thought, on them?
I think the next big breakthroughs are going to be really significant. We will stop the silly practice of installing TCs (Teachers Computers) in schools, colleges and universities and engage in the obvious - encouraging the students to bring their own laptop, and just providing them with free and easy raw connectivity. It will change the name of the game forever - a PC really is personal!
So what of those suffering a self-inflicted digital divide? They will just slowly fade away, increasingly insignificant year-on-year. And perhaps soon, we will stop wasting taxes on a lost cause.