Britain wired for fun, not wisdom

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Does your home have a fax, Internet link, or mobile phone? Then you're not alone - we are all embracing communications technology as never before. But what does it mean for society? Charles Arthur, Science Editor, investigates.

Britain is becoming a "connected nation", where access to instant communications systems is taken for granted. If your home does not include a mobile phone, answering machine, fax or Internet connection then you are in the minority: 51 per cent of homes have at least one of those, says a government survey

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that 94 per cent of households now have a fixed telephone - compared to 1972, when only 42 per cent did - and in one-fifth of the 22 million addresses in the UK, at least one person has a mobile phone. Yet a third of all fixed phone numbers are now ex-directory.

Computer technology is also invading our lives. Since the personal computer was introduced in the early 1980s, its use has risen until now 29 per cent of households have a PC, compared to 9 per cent in 1984. In parallel, the Internet - which only became commercially available in 1994 - is proving popular too, with 5 per cent of households connected. The highest percentage was in London, where 21 per cent of PC owners were wired up.

Steven Barnett, senior lecturer in communications at Westminster University, warned that such trends could lead to divisions between the "information rich" and "information poor", because the latter will not be able to afford the devices needed to stay in touch. "It could leave people behind in a profound fashion."

He also feels that the growth in mobile phone use reflects "the frenetic society" in which "angst drives people through the day".

The ONS began its inquiry to find out how office equipment was being used in homes. However, Dr Barnett reckons that wider use of PCs at home does not mean that we are turning our homes into mini-offices. Instead, the growth of computer and Net use is almost certainly mostly for entertainment rather than enlightenment or education - apart from that of children.

The ONS also found that 27 per cent of homes now have either cable or satellite receivers - biased slightly to the North, where 31 per cent have it, against just 21 per cent in the South-west. Dr Barnett interprets this as a sign that terrestrial television can expect a healthy future. "These figures suggest that only a quarter of households have chosen it. That means three-quarters of households have chosen not to have take it. It supports the suggestion that cable and satellite are a minority interest."

gadgets: a generation of change

UK households:

Percentage owning: 1972 1997

TV set (one or more) 93* 99

Satellite/cable receiver 0 27

Fixed telephone 42 94

Mobile telephone 0 22

PC 0 29

Internet connection 0 5

CD player 0 50

* includes black-and-white and colour

Source: Office for National Statistics