LEADING ARTICLE : Grab your anorak for a virtual revolution

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The Independent Online
It's here. After all the hype about the information revolution, it is finally happening. Hold on to your parka hood; it's time to handle some data. But first, a health warning: all that stuff about life on the global superhighway and people never leaving their houses - forget it. But there are a number of developments already under way that give us a clear picture of imminent and radical changes to the way we live our lives. In our pages today we can see the future, and it's on the phone.

Telephone banking is already with us. As we report on page 16, one-third of all British adults are expected to bank by phone within four years. With almost all bank notes entering the economy through holes in the wall, bank branches are rapidly becoming simply foyers for cash machines.

Another coming wave is supermarket home delivery. It may be expensive, but trials using the - whisper the word - Internet have been a success, and it could be done by phone or fax, too.

Also on our business pages, we report plans by BT to offer free local calls in return for a higher quarterly flat fee. This will change both our psychology, and economics. If the marginal cost of using telephones, or the Internet, becomes zero, their continued massive expansion is guaranteed.

Of course, most of us are not on the Internet and have only the haziest idea what it means. The two million mostly affluent, educated and male users seem a species apart, although their numbers are likely to double in the next 18 months. The rest of us are probably evenly divided between those who think the Internet is something we will have to cope with at some time, but not yet, and those who think it is an evil conspiracy to be avoided at all costs.

In fact, although the Internet will change people's lives, it will do so piecemeal, as individuals choose to take it up and invent uses for it. In practice, only a small minority of people will be able to work from home, but increasingly work will be computer-based and leisure will be computer-assisted.

Our Network supplement today carries the prediction that 1997 will be a watershed year for "media, communications and connectivity" in Britain and Europe. That is true as the Net grows cheaper and more powerful home computers hit the shops, and digital television broadcasts begin.

But the real revolution is not in the consumer's use of computers, which will continue to grow relatively slowly, but in the use of computers to allow companies to organise vast amounts of information easily. If millions of people have reasonably standard requirements for money, groceries, insurance and holidays, then they can all be handled by an easily-trained person on a phone headset in front of a screen.

Now, some people like going to the bank and talking to a real person, and many people like supermarket shopping. But most of us don't, and this is another stage in the freeing from drudgery that technology has always promised but not always delivered. This is cause for rejoicing. Let people do more interesting things than queueing, and we don't believe they'll choose to sit in front of a computer screen all day. But there are caveats.

One is that the benefits of the information revolution, inevitably, will come last to a group in society that is predominantly poor, uneducated and female.

The real information underclass consists not of the two in three of the population without a personal computer, but of the one in 12 without a telephone. They are shut out now, and will increasingly be so in future, unless the Government acts to ensure that they can opt in if they want to.

Another warning concerns the need for competition. Three monopolies give rise to particular concern. The importance of the phone network raises questions about BT's dominance of its markets. Secondly, Rupert Murdoch's "first mover advantage", in the economist's jargon, in the field of digital television also alarms us. What is worse is the link-up between the two in the creation of a potential network of huge capacity which will eventually carry television channels, computer data and telephone conversations. There is already a "glass belt around the world" of fibre optic cable, and access to it must remain as free as possible. The third concern is the dominance of computer software by Bill Gates's Microsoft, which forces nearly everyone to use the Windows system. Mr Gates intends to extend this dominance to the Internet.

This matters because the Internet is coming of age, and apart from home shopping, one of its greatest impacts will probably be in education. Already, much of the world's academic community is "on-line". The new millennium will see big changes in schools. Tony Blair, like most politicians and indeed most voters, may be moderately technophobic (he has most of his speeches typed up from handwritten notes), but he has identified this as a priority, should he be elected this year.

It may be easy to look good on this in opposition, but it is difficult to argue that John Major has shown any leadership on this issue. The Prime Minister has left it all to the good but junior Ian Taylor at the Department of Trade and Industry, with the colourless Roger Freeman responsible in Cabinet.

Mr Blair, meanwhile, has responded to criticisms, from this paper among others, of his "deal" to give BT the early right to supply Mr Murdoch's new TV channels in return for something the company would have done anyway: to cable up schools and libraries for free.

And he has been working on the more difficult question of how to supply schools with the hardware they need to gain access to the Internet.

These are the right issues for the future. Meanwhile, let's put on our anoraks and do some virtual shopping.