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Digital divide leaves underprivileged stranded

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A London conference today organised by the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) addresses the issue of the increasing marginalisation of those without access to technology.

The first e-Quality festival featured Ivan Lewis, minister for young people and adult skills, who was keen to blow the government's trumpet on this issues. He noted that New Labour has "made a significant commitment to developing ICT access, both through learndirect and through UK online centres with £396m invested in UK online centres since 1999 and over £300m in learndirect. This investment is now beginning to pay off.

"The second UK online centres evaluation study, due to be published this month, makes clear that nearly three quarters of centre users had previously not used the Internet due to lack of access or skills, and over 60 per cent were from socially excluded groups," he concluded.

Ian Kearns, associate director of ippr, was a little more circumspect : "It is important to acknowledge that progress has been made in this area. However, it is still the case that access to IT equipment and the internet is far more prevalent among the wealthy than it is among poorer sections of society."

Indeed, as is access to fast cars, big houses and heated swimming pools. Kerans' glaringly obvious statement underlines the general feeling that you're better off if you own a computer and on the slippery slope to oblivion if you don't.

This particular conference premise pre-supposes that access to technology is a desirable and immediately life-enhancing experience. In fact, those at the bottom of the pyramid often have more pressing needs - it's all very well enthusing about wireless broadband access for every African village when what the punters really want is an effective treatment to malaria.

It's arguable that technology - and particularly the Internet - does little or nothing to increase one's standard of living, happiness or prospects. The world is not a better or worse place for the invention of the personal computer, just different. Every benefit (ease of communication, access to information, building virtual communities) has a balancing downside (paedophile pornography, Nigerian 419ers, credit card phishers). As the old saying goes, you get owt for nowt.

In the end, Britain is a First-World nation. Pretty well anyone who really wants to get access to technology can find it. And if those who are genuinely impoverished have an overwhelming need to bridge the digital divide, they can always employ the tried-and-trusted low-cost method: stealing a laptop. ®

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