Computer-deprived are the new disadvantaged

BY Sylvain Comeau

In roughly a decade, the Internet has gone from a luxury to a necessity, speakers at a Concordia panel discussion said recently. There was a lot of discussion but very little debate, as panelists came to a quick consensus concerning the need to provide access to more of the world's disadvantaged.

"We're confronted daily by information that is available only on the Internet, and organizations that only exist online," said Catherine Roy, board member of community group Communautique. "That is a cause for concern, because many people still don't have access to it." Speaking for her organization, she declared Internet access “a fundamental right.”

Yvon Gagnon, director of community group L'@venue Inc, agreed, but he said that many other non-profit groups have lagged behind in recognizing this new reality.

"We found it hard to convince other community groups to offer community Internet and to teach people how to use it. They would often say they are dealing with ‘real problems, like food and lodging; basically, they saw the internet as a toy.” Gagnon’s organization provides social integration to youths in need, including low cost Internet access.

"I told them, if you think you have problems now, just wait 10 years, when these people become doubly illiterate. Disadvantaged people spend a half hour on the phone to get information that they could have gotten with two clicks of a mouse."

Gagnon noted that he was astonished by the results of a survey among the users of community Internet access services.

"Granted that our survey was not an exhaustive one; it was not a large representative sample, but I think the results were nevertheless very significant; we found that 50 per cent of those surveyed intended to buy a computer in the coming year. These are people with limited financial resources, but they intend to buy a computer; they quickly understood that this is a necessity, and not a toy or a luxury."

Since those pioneering efforts of groups like L'@venue, 12,000 community groups across Canada are now connected, as well as every library in the country, according to Robert Delorme of Industry Canada.

"We now have an environment favorable to the cyber economy; we are number two in the world in terms of preparation for Internet skills." He noted, however, that Canada's First Nations are the least connected communities in the country.

While the problem is being addressed within Canada, the "digital divide" is a gaping chasm on the international scale, particularly between North and South.

"It is very difficult to believe that we are on the same planet when we look at worldwide differences between the ICT (information and communication technologies) haves and have-nots," said George Sciadas of Statistics Canada. "And if you think we have inequalities now, that is nothing compared to 20 years from now."

He noted that the accelerating pace of technological advance makes it almost impossible for less advanced countries to catch up.

"It will take generations for countries at the bottom to reach those in the middle of the pack, and by then, those at the top -- North America, Europe, Japan — will have moved much further ahead...you may be progressing a little, but if I have a head start over you and I am progressing too, the gap can only widen."

Sciadas suggested that the importance of Internet access for the poor is not being addressed in many countries because it inevitably ends up near the bottom of a long list of more pressing needs that are not being met.

"Access is less of an issue in countries like ours. Consider South Africa, which is the most advanced country in Africa, but 40 per cent of the population has no electricity. So for these people, Internet access is really a moot point."

The panel was presented by students of the School of Community and Public Affairs.