World internet project findings: Australia's digital divides

The internet is everywhere: at work, at home, and on the move. And if the federal government has its way, it will soon be in every school.

But despite its ubiquity, we know very little about how the net is used, where and by whom. The World Internet Project is attempting to answer these questions and the Australian arm of the project has just released its initial findings with some surprising results.

The ARC Centre of Excellence for the Creative Industries and Innovation’s (CCI) Digital Futures Report found that while almost three quarters of Australians use the internet and almost 80% of these users have home broadband connection, one fifth of Australians have never used the net.

As lead investigator Julian Thomas puts it: “There is a digital divide in Australia – and it reflects patterns of uptake that are repeated elsewhere in the prosperous West. If you’re male, employed or studying, if you have a university degree and a higher than average income, you are more likely to be online.”

The study also found that Broadband technology – as opposed to dial-up connection – changes what people do in fundamental ways. According to this new research, the internet is now rivalling, and at times, superseding traditional media, particularly television. Users reported spending less time watching television, listening to the radio and reading newspapers than non-users. Users are also more likely to turn to the net as their primary source of information for important news stories.

These findings become even more significant with the realisation that the net is changing politics, as seen in the federal election last year. Just under half of users polled agreed the internet has become important for the political campaign process.

Like the Human Genome Project, this large-scale study of the net "is an ambitious, collaborative, world-wide attempt to map something that was until very recently unthinkable", Thomas claims. He says it has the potential "to tell us a great deal about who we now are – or more precisely, who Australians are becoming in the new era of networks." On a macro level, Thomas also believes that the Australian arm of the Project "will help us gauge the real prospects for turning Australia into one of those new, desirable ‘knowledge economies’ based on innovation and creativity".

The Digital Futures Report is part of the World Internet Project conducted here by Julian Thomas and Scott Ewing at the ARC Centre of Creative Innovation (CCI).