The E-volution of E-commerce Part X:
The Digital Divide and the E-Commerce Future

In addition to privacy concerns, inequality has been another prominent e-commerce related issue. In its study “Falling Through the Net” published July of 1999, the Commerce Department reported last year that only 16% of households which have not completed high school have computers, a stark contrast to the 69% which have computers and at least a bachelor’s degree. When it comes to Internet access the numbers are equally disparate with 45% for those with BAs or higher and 14% for those with only a high school diploma or GED. Along with level of education, income also proves to be a determining factor forging the digital divide.

The disparity is not only apparent in the U.S., but quite glaringly global. According to the UNDP approximately 88% of all Internet users in 1998 lived in industrial countries, home to less than 15% of the world’s population. And, whereas a computer costs one month’s salary for the average American, the typical Bangladshi must save eight years’ worth of income. For much of population on the African continent an Internet connection is impractical because fees can run as high as $100 a month, a stark contrast to the $10 someone might pay here in the States.

Critics also chide that improving government services by providing them electronically lends itself to issues of discrimination and civil rights. The argument is that the poor would effectively be severed from accessing these services as others would be privileged to do. In turn, widening the digital divide and perhaps even leading to a number of new taxes to support the efforts toward equity.

Despite some concerns it appears that progress has been made in this area. It is well known that under the auspices of Vice President Al Gore the Clinton Administration has made making the Internet a vital part of everyday life a priority (Remember the Information Super Highway?). The dramatic rise in the number of wired schools from 3% in 1994 to connecting 51% classrooms to the Internet four years later, is substantial proof of the administration progress. It is estimated that with the passage of the e-rate, a special tax included as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a million classrooms have been hooked-up.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is equally positive on the prospects of the Internet. Mark Malloch Brown, Administrator of the UNDP, recently wrote “By eliminating space and time it (the Internet) gives us an unprecedented means of overcoming two of the root causes of extreme poverty—ignorance and isolation.” He goes on to explain that the Internet has positively transformed his organization by allowing 133 country offices to communicate more efficiently, pool and share information almost immediately and established unprecedented partnerships with private organizations interested in helping the UNDP accomplish its mission of fighting world hunger, poverty and disease.

The E-commerce Future

Behind every great technology there waits another one and the Internet is no exception. Some of the technologies to look out for which are bound to help support and propel the Internet are Extensible Markup Language (XML), wireless application protocol (WAP), smart cards, broadband technologies and Internet-interactive-WebTV (iTV).

Furthermore, fierce competition will drive companies to improve their e-commerce efforts. The results will be an increase in security, speed and ease of web-site navigation; an increase in the importance placed on personalization, service-orientation, back-end integration, and localizaiton; a diversification of content offered particularly for non-PC devices such as handhelds, cellular phones, and other “information appliances”; as well as multimedia streaming audio and video content which takes full advantage of broadband access.

Considering the likelihood that wireless technology and information appliances will usurp the PC’s monopoly on Internet access (the UNDP estimates that in just over five years some 900 million electronic devices might be connected to the Internet—equal to the world’s number of telephones), even more trivial tasks will be done virtually—paperless, more efficiently, cost effectively, at anytime, and from anywhere in the world.

But not all is bright in our virtual village. People are losing jobs, businesses are going under and even whole industries are being challenged— all because of the Internet.

Print media for instance, is undergoing traumatic changes according to a recent report by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Their research concluded that more than 30% of Americans now go online for news at least once a week, compared to 20% in 1998. Another 15% receive daily reports from the internet, up from 6% two years ago. Not surprisingly, national and local viewerships dropped substantially during this same period.

Inexperienced investors are sinking retirement funds into technology stocks just to watch the value of their holdings plunge —and a life savings disappear in a matter of moments. Both commercial and residential real estate is beholden to the owners of virtual real estate who have collectively driven up prices sky-high and out-of-reach in high-tech hubs like San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Austin, Seattle and New York. Once the preferred safe-haven of cunning entrepreneurs and shady characters, P.O. boxes are being replaced by the virtual anonymity of cyberspace. The Internet is said to be ripe with scandal, crime and conspirators ranging from credit-card fraud, get-rich-quick scams to the plethora of pornography and ready-to-prey pedophiles using chat rooms to lure their next victim. And even if world leaders, business moguls, or social scientists rave about how the Internet is bringing us all closer together, the nightly local news will still surely not hesitate to mention the latest study showing the Net to be the cause of all social-ills leading to isolated youth, troubled matrimony and general discontent.

Although most would not agree that his means justified his ends, some are beginning to say that maybe Theodore Kaczynski , better known as the notorious Una-bomber, was right.

"The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in "advanced" countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. "
~ Excerpted from Theodore Kaczynski’s 35,000 word manifesto Industrial Society and Its Future

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