The information have-nots are always with us these days. Whenever politicians gather to discuss the future, they renew their pledge to make the information super-highway accessible to all and affordable for all. For if this new networking stuff is all it's cracked up to be, then it will be essential for every citizen. And if it is essential, then it is government's duty to ensure that every citizen gets some. Right?
One of the many ironies in this noble, empassioned commitment to universal service is that few of the politicians involved actually use any of the "essential" technologies which they promise to bend heaven and earth to provide for us. Which raises a troubling question. Maybe the real problem is not information have-nots, but information want-nots. And maybe the most chronic want-nots are politicians themselves.
Given that nobody really knows what the information superhighways of the future will look like, nobody can really yet judge whether and how they will be essential. Certainly the Internet is not essential. True, it embodies the greatest force for change since the invention of the steam engine. But it is entirely possible to lead a happy and productive life without an e-mail address or a WWW home page. Most people do. And as for the two mature technologies that are converging to form the roadbed of the information superhighway - telephones and television - the further irony is that the one the politicians have deemed "essential" is significantly less widely used than that which they have not.
In America, about 93 per cent of households have a telephone, while 98 per cent have television. In Britain, the contrast is even more marked: 90 per cent of households have a telephone, while 99 per cent have television. Americans try to explain the discrepancy by arguing that, in their country at least, television is free (after you've bought the set). But in Britain a television licence, the tax levied on each television-owning household to support the BBC, costs about the same as a year's rental on a residential phone.
Despite a system of universal-service cross-subsidies which channels billions each year into making telephones more affordable, Jagger's Law of economics (after Mick) holds true: people get what they need. Making the information superhighway affordable will not make it essential. On the contrary.
In America, universal service is colliding with progress. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has ruled that charges for high-bandwidth ISDN lines may have to increase by up to 50 per cent in order to make telephone service more affordable. The explanation for this nonsense is that each telephone subscriber in America now pays to help make affordable "essential services" like basic telephones for home users. Because the basic ISDN line is the equivalent of several ordinary lines, the FCC reckons that it is only fair that it should also carry several universal-service charges.
If this is the sort of help that the information superhighway can expect from the politicians that allegedly support it, then maybe it's best that they go back to disapproving of the technology - like they now do violence-laden, trash TV. But there is a better, more useful and more obvious way to help spread the reach of networks. If politicians really think this stuff is essential, maybe they could start using it themselves. Because government services really are essential, efforts to deliver those services electronically could help the whole world go online.
Truth to tell, it is politicians themselves who are the real information have-nots. Because they are old, they have less experience with new technology than 15-year-olds of any income bracket. Britain's government is stalled on the on-ramp to the information superhighway (see pages 48 to 53). The European Commission (EC) has a half-hearted Web site, opened just in time for the G7 summit, that mostly contains rehashed press releases.
But here and there a few are starting to use the technology because it's useful, not just because it's now fashionable. In America, millions will file their taxes electronically this year. In Amsterdam tens of thousands regularly use a service that provides tax advice online. And in Ireland some civil-service departments now work faster and more efficiently without paper - using Lotus Notes to share electronic documents instead of shuffling real ones.
If the politicians really want to help technology to transform the world, then the best place to start is in their own offices. None of the noble statements about the imperative of making essential technology available to the people will mean much until they are issued on e-mail as well as paper. If it's not good enough for them, how can they judge what is essential for us?
John Browning is Executive Editor of Wired.