E-envoy warns of deeper social divide

October 5, 2001

Broadband internet could bring about a deepening social divide in the knowledge economy, according to the government's e-envoy.

Andrew Pinder, who reports directly to the prime minister and is based in the Cabinet Office, said the roll-out of high-speed access to the web and other internet services had been a "relative failure" and had emphasised the disparity between different groups in the United Kingdom.

"Broadband brings about a real danger of a geographical divide," Mr Pinder told participants in the BT-sponsored Europaeum 2001 Policy forum on democracy and the internet, in Oxford last week.

He said an essential part of his mandate was to mobilise the people of the UK and to avoid deepening social divisions.

In recent broadband upgrade league tables, the country was placed second to last out of 24 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. That was in contrast to other technology implementation tables, where the UK routinely featured in the top three.

The government's goal is to give nearly all UK citizens easy access to internet services. This means positioning the UK Online centres so that in urban areas individuals are no more than a mile away and in rural areas five miles away. Some very isolated areas might not have access in the medium term, however.

The process is essential for the development of the economy and for the development of learning networks, the conference heard.

Stuart Hill, BT Stepchange director, said demographic trends and rising costs meant the current system of providing government services was economically unsustainable.

"When you combine such a prospect with an increasingly fragmented and complex society, increased education and hence awareness and access to knowledge, this suggests that traditional government also becomes politically unsustainable," he said.

"All organisations will have to be intelligent in order to survive. That means having highly developed internal neural systems to share collective knowledge and stimulate collaboration."

Tim Berners-Lee, 3Com founders chair at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of the Worldwide Web Consortium, said the attack on the World Trade Center had reinforced his conviction that the net could help to change the ways people developed ideas and beliefs about the way they lived.

"It is a question of mutual respect. It is all about communication. People use the web to communicate, to exchange information, but it is not just transmission. There is change of beliefs and a sharing of common interests," he said.

"The web needs to support structures of all sizes and we need a diverse ideas pool in the same way we need a diverse gene pool to ensure our survival."

Professor Berners-Lee said he was working on a new internet development, the "semantic web", that could help to underpin this "fractal" view of society.

Details: www.europaeum.org ; www.daml.org ; www.w3.org

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