Professor Julian Thomas is committed to creating a more inclusive internet.
For two decades, the director of RMIT University’s Social Change Enabling Capability Platform has been captivated by the social, economic and political consequences of new technologies.
“I started out as an historian and I’ve always been fascinated by how things change,” Thomas says.
“The rise of the internet and digital economy are among the most remarkable changes in our lifetimes. I’ve watched these unfold with great interest as I’ve pursued an academic and research career over the last 20-plus years.”
It would be easy to conclude that the emergence of mobile internet and cheap smartphones puts the internet in reach of everyone.
In reality, the digital world is far less egalitarian. The wave of opportunity offered by the internet is only available to those who have the skills and dollars to firmly grasp its potential.
According to the World Bank, internet penetration per country is a story of information superhighways and unpaved roads -- as low as 1.1 per 100 people in Eritrea and as high as 98.3 per 100 in Bermuda.
Australia is one of the most connected societies on earth, with more than 86 per cent of households online. But, according to Thomas, Australia’s internet is highly stratified, with more than three million people not online and a very uneven distribution of digital skills and capabilities.
“This is what we call the digital divide,” he says. “It’s been a huge challenge in Australian public policy for many years.
“It’s not only about communications infrastructure and connections. What we have now is a segmented internet which benefits people depending on their economic, cultural and social location, and that’s a big concern.”
This digital inequality has inspired Thomas and his colleagues to come up with a digital inclusion index – a comprehensive survey that paints the most detailed picture of internet access in Australia to date.
“This tool aims to make a difference in terms of how governments, community organisations and businesses can respond to the problem of digital inclusion,” Thomas says.
“For the first time they can see which people are included and where people are not getting the benefits of technology.”
The research was undertaken in collaboration with Telstra, Roy Morgan, Swinburne University and the University of New South Wales. An updated report will be released soon and findings are already being put into practice.
“There’s been a huge amount of interest,” Thomas says.
“What we are doing is putting a tool in the hands of organisations that have an interest in getting better outcomes. We’ve had extensive meetings with state governments, regional organisations, local councils, and libraries.”
Even though there are real concerns about the growing stratification of the internet, Thomas sees scope for positive change.
“We’re not as optimistic about the internet as we used to be. I think that’s a good thing because we need to grapple with the problems that it has created as well as point to its enormous potential.
“It’s exciting to think that we at RMIT can help ensure that more Australians can access these benefits.”
Story: James Giggacher