The Times: Opinion:Equal rights require equal technology-

Equal rights require equal technology

Michael Wills

Technology transforms societies, but the relationship is an unwitting one: the 18th-century mill-owner believed his spinning jennies would make him money. He never intended them to undermine and change his comfortably ordered world - but they did. Every new technology has a seed of revolution within it. To avoid being overwhelmed by change, societies must recognise its inevitability.

The convergence of information and communications technologies, epitomised by the Internet, is creating greater changes faster than ever before. Broadcast television in the US took 13 years to reach an audience of 50 million. PCs took 16 years. The Internet did it in just four years.

There are extraordinary opportunities here. Information is power and used to be the prerogative of the few. Today the Net disseminates information to every armchair astronaut in cyberspace. Businesses are being transformed: a banking transaction which costs £1 in a traditional branch costs 1p over the Internet.

Teleworking is increasing rapidly: BT aims to have 10 per cent of its workforce teleworking by March 2000. Estate agents claim that the London commuter belt stretches beyond the Home Counties, as the prosperous work at home from Thursday night to Monday morning.

The future beckons brightly to those businesses mining the e-commerce gold and those 44 per cent of households with a computer at home. But the greater the opportunities of the information revolution the greater the problems for those who are unable to take advantage. It is estimated that 60 per cent of new jobs in the US will require advanced technological skills by 2000.

And the "digital divide" between those who have the skills and those who do not is widening. Cost was identified as the main barrier to using these technologies by 41 per cent of respondents to a recent survey. Over a third, mainly with a DE socio-economic profile, have a low interest in computers and little knowledge of them. Professional households are over three times more likely to have Internet access than those of unskilled manual workers.

For the excluded and the ill-educated - and the two are increasingly synonymous - the disabilities of poor literacy and numeracy are bad enough. There is now a grave danger that the information revolution is putting up new walls, further barring them from the fruits of progress.

If the digital divide is not tackled, it will entrench existing exclusion for generations. Access to these technologies is a tool for lifelong learning: the Internet offers the most competitive prices for everything from books to cars, access to better leisure and cultural resources, and vital weapons for democratic empowerment and civic activism.

Computing power continues to double every 18 months, bringing with it new applications exploiting the new capacity, so that skills need constantly to be refreshed. Those who fall behind will be left behind, and all today's problems of social and economic exclusion will be multiplied - too much unfulfilled potential, too few skilled workers, too much spending by government for rescue purposes, too little opportunity for too many.

This is why the Government is spending £1.7 billion over the next three years to make sure that everyone is able to take the opportunities offered by the Information Revolution. It is why, this week, Tony Blair and David Blunkett are focusing on the potential of the new technologies.

We have nearly quadrupled the primary schools hooked up to the Internet, made competence in information technology a requirement for new teachers, and embarked on a £230 million drive to train existing teachers. By 2002, every school in the country will be hooked up to the Internet, 800 IT learning centres will be set up to widen access to these technologies, and up to 100,000 recycled computers will be provided for low-income families in the inner cities.

The Left has always been dedicated to a fairer society, struggling to banish Beveridge's five giants of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. These battles are still with us but today they are taking new shape.

The challenge is to equip all the people of Britain with the tools to succeed. Deploying these new technologies should be as natural to everyone as driving a car. They are the bridge to the future and we cannot afford to leave anyone stranded behind.

Michael Wills is UnderSecretary of State at the Department for Education and Employment