A light-hearted yet informative look at how and by whom the Internet is currently used in the UK. It takes a close look at the Blair Governments’ policy of improving and extending accessibility nation-wide to see if and how it has lived up to its promises. My first ever article written in 2005.

“The old believe everything; the middle-aged suspect everything; the young know everything.” To the older generation here in the UK, Oscar Wilde’s words may seem to be prophetic as the IT revolution starts to make an impact on the everyday life of the British public. To the parents of today’s computer savvy youth, it can sometimes seem as if their offspring do indeed know everything there is to know about modern technology while they themselves are left fumbling in the dark.

Tony Blair’s administration looks set to change all that. Perhaps because he’s only in his 40’s and has a young family familiar with WAP, WWW and MSN, he has recognised that in the 21st century we must all know our IT stuff, and so has set out a bold and far reaching plan to make the UK “the best country in the world for e-commerce”.

To achieve the grand aim of ensuring that everyone, no matter who or where they are, will have access to the internet by 2005, earlier this year he announced a raft of initiatives, under the banner ‘UK Online’, to boost Internet use. First he is looking to his own back yard and aims to get all government services online and easily accessible through a single, personalised electronic point of entry, so creating what Ian McCartney, the minister responsible for e-government called a “fresh approach to the relationship between the citizen and government.”

The trouble is that not everyone can afford a home PC, in fact, only 3-6% of low-income groups and 48% of higher income groups currently have home access to the Internet. Therefore the aim is to get the rest of the population surfing the wave of progress from public access points as common tomorrow as public telephone kiosks are today. How? By opening 700 IT stations nationwide by next year to give poorer communities in particular, a stake in the information age.

It is hoped that by providing Internet access in such diverse places as post offices, community, employment and shopping centres, churches, libraries, bus and train stations and even pubs, Mr. Blair can forfil his own prophesy that “It is likely that the internet, in time, will become as ubiquitous as electricity is today. The knowledge economy must be an economy for the many and not the few … available to all.”

But if you don’t fancy emailing sweet nothings to your loved one from the bar of the Dog and Duck there are plans to make 100,000 cheap, recycled computers available for purchase or lease to those on tight budgets.

Fear not if you don’t yet know your beer from your BIOS, there are also government discounts of 80% for all adult on-line courses as well discount vouchers for computer training worth about £400 each.

Recognising that it’s the fresh young roots and not just the older branches of the IT tree that need careful nurturing, the P.M. has pledged a further £1bn to put computers and Internet connections in all England’s schools by 2002. This will be supported by a £700m ‘National Grid of Learning’ scheme that will provide money for the new equipment, support for teachers and a new network of broadband, high speed links so that all learning institutions can benefit from faster Net access.

Napoleon once said, “England is a nation of shopkeepers.” The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, would rather we were a nation of dot.com executives. By allowing any purchase of computers, software or Internet enabled phones to be deducted from profits in the first year, creating significant tax savings, he’s hoping to encourage businesses large and small to invest in the future.

So is the UK set to become a nation of computer savvy Mr. Spocks or, like Star Wars Episode 1, does it all sound good in theory but never quite lives up to expectation? It certainly seems to be working in schools where 86% of primary pupils are now using the Internet and nearly all secondary schools (98%) are now on-line. Colleges too are slowly coming on-stream and Universities have long had dedicated computer rooms with free Net access for students.

Although small businesses, perhaps due to lack of awareness, have been somewhat slow to take advantage of the tax breaks on offer, 90% of workers are now employed in businesses connected to the Internet.

As for the public at large, these grand plans inevitably take time to filter down to the man or woman in the street. But if my own small, unremarkable town in Surrey is anything to go by, changes are afoot. The local sleepy railway station has already sprouted a public access terminal in the ticket office and the library offers Net access, even if it’s at a somewhat inflated price on a PC inadequate for the job.

For those still steadfast in their intention not to be sucked into the Internet age, resistance may be useless. The BBC continues to forge ahead with the switch from analog to digital transmissions and will, over the next few years, force most of us to ditch our old sets and buy the new all singing, all dancing ones, with built-in email and Net access. As TV’s are still far more common than PC’s in homes, by sheer osmosis, the government’s vision to make us all part of the “knowledge economy” may yet come to pass.

So what impact, if any, does the UK government’s vision of the future have on the Asian economies, some of whom, like Singapore, pioneered the concept of an ‘intelligent island’? Certainly a more clued-up UK workforce and business community will allow trade between Europe and Asia to run more smoothly, efficiently and cheaply as business to business trade on the Net looks set to skyrocket. And the prospect of first class IT training facilities may yet encourage more students from Asia to study in the UK and take their knowledge back home to enrich and encourage their own communities to join the rest of us on the Super Highway. If the UK and/or Singapore model is followed by other members of ASEAN, even that pilgrimage to some remote jungle tribe deep in the heart of the steamy undergrowth soon might not be the ‘get away from it all’ experience you had hoped for! That authentic local tribesman might just have a WAP phone tucked into his loincloth!

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash