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UCLA impact study casts a wide net

It makes interesting news to read that a group of researchers at UCLA are about to embark upon a longitudinal study of the impact of the Internet upon consumers’ lives.

It seems the study, that has the financial backing of some of America’s largest corporations, will track the social consequences of the spread of the Internet in eighteen countries over a number of years.

A great Western Australian, Dr Kevin Cullen, demonstrated the value of longitudinal studies with the work he did in health studies in Busselton over more than twenty years during the 1960s and 70s.

The net is rapidly having an impact upon the entire social fabric of countries like Australia. As we enter the new millennium, we now know society is in the process of widespread change.

Countless new questions and implications arise on a daily basis.

Very few decision-makers understand precisely what is going on and even fewer have the answers we need. What we most certainly do need is more and better data.

Apparently, Singapore and Italy have put their hand up to be early participants in the UCLA study.

For the timid amongst us, as a minimum, we should certainly cooperate with such an exercise in order to be kept in the loop.

A more courageous step would be for a group of appropriately qualified Australians to design and undertake a genuinely ‘Australian effort’.

Ideally, an Australian longitudinal study of this type should involve:

• A combined team effort of university, private sector and government participants

• A time frame of at least 25 years

• A multi-disciplinary team of researchers

• Terms of reference that examine social and economic consequences of the Internetworked society

• A guarantee of funding and independence for the research team.

Now that the initial preoccupation with hardware, bandwidth and basic technology has matured, more of us are beginning to accept that the vitally important issue for the future is content.

The content of the new online services will have widespread impact on how, why and when we do so many things in the future.

If we are to salvage and strengthen the value systems that lie at the very base of Australian culture we need our own data about our own people and our own institutions.

Australian governments, companies, householders, educational and other social institutions in the years ahead will highly value quality data about the Australian social, economic and political environment.

It will be interesting to have comparisons to make with other nations because of the work of the UCLA study.

It would be reprehensible if the only data available to tomorrow’s decision-makers across Australia was based on the analysis of data collected in foreign countries.

Longitudinal studies, by their nature, report regularly and in these transitionary times the findings would be of value and relevance in both the private and public sectors.

The Internet revolution is being driven by the US economy.

Now the Americans recognise the fundamental importance of having meaningful data in this respect and have decided to act, perhaps we can expect some action downunder.

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