If you are poor, disabled, elderly, living in a depressed rural area or unlucky enough to suffer from all of these social disadvantages, then take heart. The leaders of the Group of Eight (G8) nations - the prime ministers and chancellors of the world's biggest and most important economies - are threatening to transform your life with the healing power of the internet and computer technology.
Members of the G8 summit, which took place in Japan a couple of weeks ago, heard that there is an increasing gap between the so-called digital haves - the rich Western nations, including Japan - and the digital have-nots, which represent the rest of the world.
According to the figures presented to delegates, 90 per cent of internet hosts are based in affluent nations, which contain only 16 per cent per cent of the world's population.
Pressure groups are also pointing out how unfair it is that vast amounts of money is spent on building an internet infrastructure that few people can afford to use, while so little is spent on building new hospitals, for example. To make its point, one group of angry protesters even doused a laptop with lighter fuel and ceremonially incinerated it in front of the summit building.
In an attempt to respond to the problem of digital inequality, however, the men at the top have now pledged to create a group called the Dotforce, or Digital Opportunity Taskforce. They have set aside a massive $15bn bounty to fund the group.
New Labour pains
But the so-called digital divide is also starting to be recognised as an issue closer to home. New Labour has been making pledges to provide the socially excluded with access to IT, and in particular the internet, since it won the general election in May 1997.
However, some people involved in the sharp end of community internet provision are far from impressed with how the government has so far translated its promises into reality.
"It was announced at some point by [UK Chancellor] Gordon Brown's people that individuals on benefits in Britain would be able to lease an internet-ready computer for £5 per month," explains Mark Walker, project manager of the Sussex Community Internet Programme. "It was a headline-grabber and also a reasonable idea, but nothing more has been heard about it."
However, George Cook, chief executive of pioneering computer recycling outfit Cybercycle, has been involved directly with Brown's initiative and confirmed that the scheme is still on course.
"Nothing's happened yet, but contracts are being signed for our group to supply up to 50,000 recycled computers over a two-year period," he said. "Delays occurred for reasons beyond everyone's control."
Cybercycle has set up a computer refurbishing workshop in London on the rundown Angel Town estate in Lambeth. The aim is to give the whole estate access to the internet by providing it with recycled machines and signing up a community ISP.
"Young unemployed people are getting work experience building computers, and at the same time there is a training suite next door to get them up and running on the theory side as well," Cook explained.
However, there are clear signs that a digital divide already exists on the estate. "In places like Angel Town, PC ownership is an eighth of everywhere else, for a whole host of reasons. We offered one single parent woman a PC in her home and she declined it. She said if anyone knows she has anything of value, people will raid the house, putting her children at risk. People are afraid of having anything new," said Cook.
"We should make sure everyone knows it's an old computer - four or five years old and not worth stealing. How we arrange things from there, in a non-threatening way, offering a real choice, is going to be a huge task," he added.
The bigger picture
But Walker claims that the digital divide is about more than just having a computer. "It's less to do with access - it's more to do with the move of banking, benefits, health information and many other things on to computer databases and credit card access to these services," he said.
"Digital poverty could become a political pawn. It's quite complicated. It's not really about having computers. It's the fact that we live in an increasingly credit card based society and if you don't have one you will be left behind. Some will have access, some won't. People aren't deliberately being left out, but if you don't have a telephone bill, for example, or access to credit, you won't be part of the web," he added.
Cook agrees. "A quarter of the nation is living in poverty, and many have no bank account at all. If you live in a place like Angel Town, you might even find it difficult to get credit regardless of your circumstances," he said.
"We are working on the concept of a virtual credit union, where anyone can bank or borrow money. We are talking to the Post Office, which is currently putting internet communication points into many post offices."
Cook's plan would mean that the Post Office became a kind of ecommerce hub, as well as a virtual credit union. Post offices, which are threatened in many rural areas with closure, could also find that the scheme provides them with a new source of income.
Cook added that by 2002, the government plans to pay nearly all social benefits directly into bank accounts, making it even more important to get some sort of provision for those without bank facilities in place soon.
But what is the government doing to address the issue of digital exclusion now?
In the wake of a report in 1998 by the Social Exclusion Unit, the administration asked Policy Action Team 15 (Pat 15) to develop a strategy to increase the availability and takeup of IT among people living in deprived areas.
Recommendations from 18 Pat reports now form the basis of a proposed national policy to encourage neighbourhood renewal. A framework for this policy setting out the government's suggestions for what it could do in partnership with local government, community, voluntary and private sectors, has been published as a consultation document and is currently out for review.
Walker explained: "[The government] set up a series of policy action teams to look at problems such as this - and it's good stuff, a fantastic idea. Pat 15 reported recently on the digital future and the full text can be seen at www.pat15.org.uk/menu.htm as pdf files."
But he foresees that problems may arise because different government departments with responsibility for different elements of the jigsaw puzzle do not seem to communicate with each other.
The scheme has already given rise to some pretty inspiring computer projects, however, including one in Grimethorpe, South Yorkshire. Here a group of former miners wanted to develop and communicate their love of racing pigeons. The pigeon fanciers, many of whom had never before clicked a mouse button in anger, soon learnt the weird ways of the web.
As a result, they have set up the world's first website dedicated to the noble practise of racing birds and are now well on the way to becoming part of the dotcom revolution.
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