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The Wired Majority

The Wired Majority

The at every level Australian governments are under increasing pressure to use the Internet to serve the Australian public. (See Sue Bushell's story on electronic service delivery, "Public Address Systems", page 24.) The origins of that pressure are varied and include a desire for efficiency, which often means reducing visits to public offices or reducing telephone calls to agency personnel.

Those pressures are producing a revolution in information delivery, and public sector managers - like their counterparts in the private sector are transforming from data processing managers to online publishers. However, unlike information managers in the private sector, government managers must serve all citizens equally, whether or not they have a computer or Internet connection. And while Australians are some of the fastest adopters of technology in the world, currently only a fraction of the Australian public uses the Internet.

While we can expect increasing numbers of people to use the Internet in coming years, it will still take a long time for the majority of Australians to become network users, and many will never go online.

In an environment where real wages are falling, spending power is declining, and the vast Australian middle class is being further stratified downwards a significant portion of Australians are not buying computers, let alone setting up an Internet account. They're having trouble putting food on the table or buying school uniforms.

Thus public sector managers face a paradox: increasing pressure to develop online systems to serve the public when an overwhelming majority of government service clients do not use online services or have access to them. If equalised home ownership of PCs and network connections is unlikely, what is the solution to the problem?Community computing centres and community networks may provide a possible answer. Community computing centres pool computer and resources in publicly available sites. A community network is a marriage of community an technology.

The community network model assumes that everyone should have some type of network access and shouldn't have to wait until it can be worked into a household budget.

If we can use an expanded vision of community - so that terminals can be located not just at schools, libraries and government offices but in laundries, bus stops, grocery stores and community centres and other community "hangouts" - and if we combine community computing centres with a sustainable community network, we produce a public-access model that may help alleviate the trends that are currently turning into a society of information "haves" and "have-nots".

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