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Romeo and Juliet Act 1 Scene 1 William Shakespeare

 

While growing older may have given me a more considered view of life there are some things that even now will drive me into a rant. One such thing is people in responsible, public facing roles who grab a headline by stating the obvious. Take, for instance, Eddie Copeland Head of Technology Policy at Policy Exchange: http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/people/research/item/eddie-copeland . I don’t know Eddie but he has a blog http://policybytes.org.uk and an impressive CV ranging from being a Parliamentary Researcher, a Congressional Intern, and Project Manager of large infrastructure projects and so on.

His offense on this occasion is his recommendation, widely publicised in the press and on the BBC last Tuesday, that the Government should offer the elderly lessons in the internet to encourage them to ‘discover life online’. I know that this is a sound bite from the Policy Exchange Manifesto which suggests that £875m is the figure required to get the final 17% online but aren’t we entering into a world of unreality here? Actually I would challenge the idea that we need £875m to tackle the problem of the final 17% (approximately 6.2 million people); that’s £141.13p per person more or less – what’s the 13p for I wonder?

It’s not that I would deny people working in the field of digital inclusion access to a slice £875m it’s an agenda that’s very close to my heart and I do not for one minute underestimate the importance of the work; it’s the approach and the short sighted attitude that makes me so cross. This is a technology manifesto intended to influence Government policy and the headline grabber is get older people online to help with problems of loneliness.

Contrast this with the interview on Giga Om with Usman Haque on May 20th just one week earlier: https://gigaom.com/2014/05/20/thingful-wants-to-crawl-the-internet-of-things-but-is-this-the-right-model/ . Usman Haque also has an impressive CV he is a founding partner of Umberellium http://www.umberellium.co.uk , founder of the Internet of Things data infrastructure and community platform Pachube.com. He is an architect, creates responsive environments and dozens of mass-participation initiatives in cities, festivals and galleries throughout the world.

His view is that being on line empowers people and gives them the opportunity to take control of their environment. He is interested in how cities can talk to people and how people can interact with where they live. While there is a view that you have to have the skills before you can interact – a little obvious – that view misses the point. If you are setting out policy you are driving something forward not focussing on remediation of the obvious problem. If the vision for the future is realistic and enticing then the means will be found to redress the issues but if the focus sets out that we have to do A before we can progress to B then we may never realise the vision never mind succeed in including the final 17%.

Policy Exchange also falls into the skills trap: teach the skills and surely the rest will follow. It is widely recognised today that skills only approaches have pretty much failed – which is why we still have the 17%, the long tail that grows ever longer. We have to address the issues of trust, confidence, and belief and benefit which means that skill is just one piece and it doesn’t follow that it has to come first.

Policy Exchange and Eddie Copeland are seeing people as passive participants in the digital world; consumers and employees. The trick is to see people as active participants who are taking control and realising value in a digital economy. In the digital world full time mono occupations have gone forever and we need to be agile, self reliant, just in time learners. Let us look at the means to achieve that as a headline.

When the RSA undertook its recent survey of digital champions in January I must confess to being somewhat down and not very positive. This may be the result of living on the periphery of a large, sparse county and being dependent on a satellite for connectivity who knows. Being in this sort of a situation does equip you for all kinds of other things because you know what the limitations are: I cannot, for example, easily join in Google Hangouts because of latency inbuilt into the satellite service. Unless something is happening in Market Drayton then everything requires a minimum thirty minute car journey and if you’re in the South of the County then it can be one and a half to two hours. Yes, I know, I chose to live here and the benefits outweigh the dis-benefits; it’s a good life Jim just not as most people know it.

Access is a big issue round here and there is a daily tussle between the incumbent supplier of broadband and local people. Years of under investment and people making do with what’s available has led to an environment of poor service delivery and angry customers. It is into that environment that the local authority sponsored Superfast Broadband scheme was launched in 2013 with much publicity and while the excitement lasted all was well and then the stark reality of what the current State Aided scheme really offered came home and battle resumed. Here in the far north of the county we appear to be in line for an up to 27Mb download service by 2016 but that is far from guaranteed. Information is vague, the maps released are worse than useless and should it be that parts of the Parish are not included then implementing a scheme based on acquiring additional funding (not yet identified) could take another two years meaning that some or all of the parish might not get a Superfast service until 2018 at the earliest. Those people who know about such things also complain that the fibre service is really a copper service from the cabinet and that it’s contended and the speed downgrades with distance.

It’s interesting to see the impact of this on the psyche of people in the village: they lose interest in the digital world, they perceive the village as being undervalued, you hear the phrase them and us and a sense of growing apartheid. This is not just about technology it’s about the role of digital in sustaining communities. Which brings me back to the role of a digital champion: at first sight a digital champion might be seen as offering those skills that facilitate participation; a digital surgeon offering social media surgeries for instance. I can subscribe to that model for a lot of good comes out of such activity, but might not a digital champion stand up for the community cause as well? I have been approached to participate in a consultation exercise with the local authority to try and better inform the remainder of the current roll out programme. The invitation is as a result of both my engagement with a disability network in Shropshire and my title of digital champion within the RSA. In putting my name forward my unsolicited sponsor has used by RSA profile. Why? Because it says that I have experience and that I am passionate about the potential of digital to empower people.

Initially seen as a conduit to enable Fellows to communicate and share, surely this raises questions about the role of digital champions as perceived by the RSA. Digital technology has already impacted on Arts; not just how the arts are created but how they are distributed and how they are consumed; digital is the medium of promotion, information and education as well as distribution. Digital technology continues to impact on Manufacturing from concept through design to implementation and beyond and with the steady growth of technologies like additive manufacture the impact will continue to influence the peripheral manufacturing environment in areas such as storage and logistics. We are starting to see changes in ideas about value in the digital economy and the role of data in personalising experiences and goods.

Learning communities build social capital and social capital leads to innovation; innovative communities are sustainable communities. The role of the digital champion within the RSA is capable of evolving and it should be allowed so to do because that wider role contributes to the aims and objectives of the RSA itself.

I once had a teacher who would say to me “Everything matters Nash, but nothing matters that much!”. Back in the day, in the 1960’s that may well have been the case but network effects were less palpable then, less obvious. Today, in our networked society everything matters an awful lot because you never know what will ripple through the nexus of connections and make an impact. The law of unexpected consequences has never been more apparent.

If you had pulled together all of the world’s top ophthalmic surgeons in 1950 and asked them to describe the perfect surgical tool not one of them would have described the laser; and yet in 1960 when Theodore Maiman launched the ruby laser into the world he had created not just such a tool but also the basis of our modern day communications – in fact the fabric of the network itself. We feel the impact of the laser today because it is pervasive: you can buy a laser at your local DIY store. The laser has made it way to the edge and so we find it not just in the surgeon’s hand but also as part of our every day existence.

3D printing matters and it matters a great deal: right now, for the majority of people 3D printing is cute. It produces weirdly coloured often strangely finished everyday things in plastic and we all go “Ahhh, isn’t that amazing”. It is confined to a small group of enthusiasts and it sits on the periphery of becoming main stream. I read just this week that Hewlet Packard is planning to get into the retail 3D printer market. Already there are some serious 3D prototyping machines; 3D printers have made it into medicine and they are being used to print high precision parts for NASA. Earlier this week, Wired reported that a German company has figured out how to print cars. 3D printing is making its way to the edge sure enough but the impact will not be in the way we conveniently repair broken plastic components or entertain ourselves with tasteless coloured op art. The real impact of 3D printing will be on logistics.

Whatever we buy these days has to be made, stored, distributed, displayed, advertised and either collected or delivered. Take two examples: a set of mugs and a car. The lifecycle of a mug is interesting; often designed in one country, manufactured in another, packed and wrapped in a third (using packaging from a fourth) and then delivered, advertised and sold in a fifth. This is a huge logistics industry made possible because of our networks.

I couldn’t design a decent mug if my life depended upon it and I want something more than an off white vessel with a handle from which to drink my morning coffee. Whether I buy my mugs from a shop or an online website or even from a catalogue what if the final step in the purchase was to go home and see them print out? That means that everything from the design process onwards in the current system would become redundant: no overseas trade, no containers full of mugs and packaging, no labels in different languages no packing machines and so on. In energy terms it’s marvellous but what about all of that employment both here and in the emerging economies? Possible now? I would say so.

When I had my last car I ordered it 12 weeks before I could collect it. That was fine and it worked for me. On the day I ordered it I sat there while the salesman placed the order on the system in Germany where the car was built, with my name on it to my specifications and shipped to England where 12 weeks later I collected it from the showroom. What if nothing was shipped except the raw materials and the power unit? What if, as the order was placed, the production line of 3D printers swung into action in the workshop at the back of the showroom with just a few people to monitor the process and to do the pieces of assembly that the robots couldn’t manage? Possible now? I think not but within twenty years, almost certainly.

As 3D printing moves from the world of the enthusiast to the economic edge we need to plan for the change it will bring in how we are employed and educated but also in how our tastes change and the way we value things. I suspect that everyday items will be things we value for their convenience – value in use but there will be an increased value in things that are crafted, by us and by individuals – value in personalisation perhaps.

George Carlin, the American stand up comedian said: “Never disagree with an idiot. He will bring you down to his level and then beat you with experience”. He came to mind this week when I was reading the reports of Apple CEO, Tim Cook’s response to criticism of Apple’s aggressive tax avoidance tactics. It’s not our tax avoidance that’s the problem he said it’s your tax regime (I’ve paraphrased but you get the gist). That same “bubble” mentality was evident in an Observer piece on Sunday: “How Silicon Valley tech elite’s wealth created a world apart” by Rory Caroll. This was very much a populist piece, by which I mean it wasn’t world shattering investigative journalism, but it highlighted a way of thinking. In summary this was a description of how employees from companies like Google, Apple, EA and Twitter are setting themselves apart from the people who live in the same geographical location. They travel in their own buses, they create their own gated communities and they create a sense of taking much and giving back little. They deny it, of course, with statements which reflect a view of San Francisco as a dirty city with poor schools to which the elite come to create wealth regardless. One reflects that they can’t understand people’s criticism; after all they are helping people to share.

Of course, as an outsider looking in, you can see that from Tim Cook to the unnamed developer they’re missing the point. We can apply Apple’s logic to any number of laws that we don’t happen to like; it’s not that I broke the speed limit, it’s just that you set the limit too low; likewise the tech employee community cannot see the difference between doing for and doing with.

Was any technology truly disruptive that didn’t move things closer to the edge? For example, the personal computer, the private car, the smart phone, Mpeg compression or the internet? Surely the disruption comes because the means of consumption or production becomes increasingly divorced from the core and choice is placed in the hands of the individual. We can see a cycle in which a new development triggers a market change, the old core responds first with negative publicity and then with attempts at regulation; then there is adaptation, new market models arise and it starts again. Old companies disappear or change and new ones grow up to replace them, better suited to the new environment.

This begs a question: what is the role of the Cloud? Think before you answer! On the one hand the cloud (let’s not get into the argument about what the cloud physically is; I know it isn’t a “the” but as a concept it’s out there, it’s working and like it or not most of us use it. We can think of it as a great facilitator, no cloud no smart phone for instance. We can see it as a great benefit; the Internet of Things is unlikely to function without the Cloud, there is going to be no Drop Box, Netflix will struggle and the low cost, fast running start up will, well it will not start up!

What of the cloud as an aggregator, a consumer of very big data, about us? Where does the wealth on which all of those unpaid taxes accrue get created? Isn’t it based on the analysis of that eye watering collection of data about us? Up to a point I accept the argument that nothing in this world is free; I don’t get to use my smart phone for all of those personalised services for nothing. In return I give up data about me, my contacts and my life. At what point do I, or any of us for that matter, decide that the cost is too high?

I am a great admirer of Jarond Lanier; not just because of his achievements but because of his ability to  set out the world from his point of view. While he is great at identifying trends he’s not so hot on the solutions and his latest book “Who owns the future” is a case in point. His argument for humanistic economics sounds okay but it’s based on an old idea of value; that of value in ownership. The economics of the digital realm comes from value in use. Without the cloud my smart phone may be an aging design icon but it’s also just a lump of useless alloy and glass. The value lies not in ownership but in use. Right now that value is created for me in time I will need that value to be created with me – and the digital network will allow that process of co-creation to happen. If it doesn’t then the price I am currently paying to realise that value will be deemed too high (I believe I will not be alone) and I will go elsewhere and do things other ways. Two things flow from this, firstly the developers that are setting up their world apart in the dirty city will have to start to do things with their neighbouring community and not exist in the belief that they are doing things for otherwise things will fall apart very quickly. Secondly that data of mine that you are taking in payment for services is generating a lot of money – much more than I think the services are worth – so give something back Mr Cook, pay your damn taxes.

As a final thought I firmly believe that cloud technology will eventually move to the edge where it will become truly disruptive. This will be because of resource demands and as every network architect knows the closer to the edge the less resource dependent it is; where we are now is unsustainable. I predict a period of negativity, followed by regulation (presumably in return for paid taxes) and then adaptation and a new business model – it will take time, but it will happen.

What comes first the business magnate or the politician? Does success in one field naturally lead to an involvement in the other? I ask this because I’m fascinated by the parade of successful business leaders entering Ten Downing Street (sometimes by the back door) and I can understand the desire of Governments to court investment and expertise. I am disturbed, however, when the pronouncements of the business world both in private and public emerge as political rhetoric and public policy.

Politics, Technology and The Internet are conjoined and difficult to separate. I imagine most people who read this blog will know Joe Trippi’s “The Revolution Will Not be Televised Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything” and “Learning from Obama” by Colin Delany. As nothing succeeds like success we are accustomed to receiving our political messages through a range of media; witness the successful use of Social Media by the Labour MP Tom Watson.

There is the promise of the empowered masses as set out in “Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens when people Come Together” by Clay Shirky and “We Think: Mass innovation, not mass production” by Charles Leadbeater. The Arab Spring is held aloft as an example of populations engaged, empowered and active in establishing democracy with the help of social media sharing.

What happens when these two ends of the political spectrum become entwined; when the successful business leader seeks to influence government and promotes the ideas through those channels of influence? You may endorse the meritocracy and argue that it’s a natural progression but I find myself thinking: “I didn’t vote for that; did you?”

As a case in point Marc Zuckerberg recently launched FWD.us a lobby group promoting immigration reform in the US. This group has the support of some high profile tech names not least Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer in addition to Marissa Mayer and Eric Schmidt. FWD.us has come in for some criticism not least from Om Malik founder of GigaOm  who has questioned the objectives and reasoning of the organsiation in terms of its underlying philosophy and its suitability to take a political stance, not least on the thorny subject of immigration. He questions Zuckerberg’s standing on privacy he also questions the perceptions of the supporting Silicon Valley crowd.

Steve Lehar has written about whether the world we see is real or simply a copy created by our brain in “The World in Your Head: A Gestalt View of the Mechanism of Conscious Experience” This idea of a perception bubble is used to describe a situation where people become disconnected from the real world and they see it in terms of the shared values of themselves and their close circle. An example would be the people we choose to follow on Twitter or Facebook because they reaffirm our beliefs about the world in which we live; those who don’t we choose to ignore. There’s an interesting piece on Gigaom Research by Derrick Harris.

So what! I hear you shout. Well The New York Times highlighted recently FWD.us has run into trouble already: Its subsidiaries have taken a swipe at Obama’s Healthcare strategy and has promoted a controversial oil pipeline currently attracting environmental objections. I can understand if people write this off as an American phenomena but I’m not so sure. In 2011 Eric Schmidt made a quiet entrance to Downing Street to “talk business with the Government” the discussions reportedly involved economic growth in the UK and the role technology could play. Shortly thereafter Schmidt gave a speech on the importance of developing programming skills in school age children in preparation for the future. On the face of it you can’t argue with that and I for one would subscribe to the inclusion of programming skills in a National Curriculum. However, move forward a little over 12 months and we get: “Coding essential to future curriculum, says Michael Gove”  A Speech by the Education Secretary following the government’s ditching of the national curriculum programme for ICT. The speech included the quote: ““For children who have become digital natives and who speak fluent technology as an additional language, the ICT curriculum was clearly inadequate,” said Gove. Having spent many years working in the field of digital inclusion I have all sorts of questions about “digital natives” and the speaking of “fluent technology” by young people across the spectrum. In asking those questions I am mindful of other thinkers in the world of digital society such as Sherry Turkle in “Alone Together”, Evgeny Morozov “The Net Delusion” and Jarond Lanier “You Are Not A Gadget”. An education for a digital age is more than an ability to programme.

Do we draw a red line and say thus far and no further? Where do we draw that line? Maybe we should look out of our perception bubbles and see where we are in relation to the real world. I’m curious as to what FWD.us means; is a shortening of Forward or does it stand for Facebook World Domination? Probably neither but it does make you think doesn’t it?

In 2003 I was fortunate to partner with colleagues at Birmingham City to participate in the Digital Challenge. We made a bid to create a means of delivering public services in a personalized way to individuals through channels of choice; does that sound familiar? In 2003 there was no ubiquitous smart phone so we faced up to the challenge of creating our vision with the technology of the day. It was the journey not the outcome that mattered though at the time we were focused on winning the challenge. An important debate considered how much information we were prepared to forego in order to receive the services we wanted; we questioned how widely shared those values were and how much that value derived from the benefits we envisaged. We were ahead of our time in our thinking but the technological challenges were too great and our ability to sell the idea missed the mark.

The GigaOm podcast on Monday 22nd April on the importance of mobile to retail featured Dr Phil Hendrix and Doug Stephens. I will leave the podcast to speak (no pun intended) for itself; it’s well worth a listen but it was the quote “If data is currency then who is the bank?” that caught my attention. Our online identities reside in a number of places but will they ever be aggregated? Will one identity become more important than the others? We don’t hear as much about identity as we used to; at one time there was a lot of discussion about single, transferable identity hence we can now “log in” to different sites with our Facebook ID, or our Twitter ID or our Google ID.

But all is not well in data land because along with that shared login comes personal information and that personal information is being harvested.

I’ve read two different views of this recently: Tom Cochran writes in the All Things D blog Where he highlights the benefits in exchange for service argument. Nothing is free and if we want to enjoy personalized information, any time anywhere access to relevant information and the convenience of the cloud combined with shared access across different devices then there is a cost; that cost is the personal information that service providers harvest when we use those “free” services. Cochran’s view is that it’s worth it, he writes:

“There is a zero-sum relationship between personalization and privacy”

A case in point is put forward by Mathew Ingram who writes in GigaOm about his experience with Google Now:

“There’s no question the kind of data collection Google has to do in the background to power its Google Now service can be a little intrusive — perhaps too intrusive for some. But it also makes the results extremely useful.”

Om Malik takes up the contrary argument in his piece on the recently announced Facebook Home in which he argues that it “…destroys any notion of privacy”. In his piece “Why Facebook Home Bothers Me” Malik argues that the genie is out of the bottle and that “it’s too late to debate” but his concern is that:

“…. Facebook is going to use all this data — not to improve our lives — but to target better marketing and advertising messages at us”.

What we need is a more purposeful use of data; what Derrick Harris describes as “…a data democracy, not a data dictatorship” . This is something that I’ve argued for on a number of occasions.

When we sat and debated the use of personal data back in 2003 we did so with the mindset of a benign dictator giving to those who we deemed ready to receive; in our defense our motives were of the best kind. Ten years on we have moved on from our pioneering spirit and we have learned, just as the technology has moved on and changed in ways we couldn’t even imagine then enabling our vision. People have the right to empowerment through digital inclusion it is not the place of a minority to decide nor is it their place to take that data and use it to profit themselves without due consideration of the rights of the majority.

In “Who Owns The Future” Jarond Lanier argues that the disparity between those who harvest data and those who give it for free contributes to inequality in society. We should listen to him and when we give our data in return for a “free service” we should consider the cost.

If you’re like me you probably have two, three or even more books on the go at any one time. It’s a character failing I guess; the inability to sustain concentration on a single thing for more than a short while. That said, I’m quite happy to flit from one to the other spending an hour or so on one then putting it to one side and spending half an hour on another. I have four on the go at the moment:

“Umbrella” by Will Self is like a babushka doll, it peels back history starting from a woman’s incarceration in a Victorian mental institution in the mid twentieth century. Having personal experience of caring for someone who spent time in such an institution during the early seventies this book triggers vivid memories and I have to put it down for a while and then go back to it; it is both disturbing and addictive.

I move from that to “Value & Worth: Creating New Markets in the Digital Economy” by Irene Ng. This is one of those books that provides multiple “light bulb” moments as it analyses the way in which the digital economy works; value is redefined and we begin to re-think what we mean by co-creation and co-production. It has led me to re-visit and re-evaluate the work of thinkers like Clay Shirky right back to E V Hippel and L Leydesdorff.

In similar vein I’m also reading “Who Owns the Future” by Jarond Lanier. I’m a big fan of Lanier even though I find his style irritating and “You Are Not a Gadget” should be essential reading for anybody in the digital inclusion arena. In his latest book he looks at how the Internet is becoming a driver of inequality by shifting power to a minority with the willing participation of the masses. This is the dark side of big data; it raises significant questions about the political forces that drive the Internet and highlights the shifting influence of the middle classes.

All of the above are e-books, the last one “Traces Remain” by Charles Nicholl is a hard back given to me by my son for Christmas. It’s a series of essays which examine the insights we can gain into some of the lesser known people in history (principally late Tudor and early Stuart) who had an influence on better known characters such as Shakespeare but whose record is contained in fragments. It’s a great book at bedtime and it provides a satisfying break from the digital world and yet it still has relevance because we all leave traces in our on line world it’s just that our information legacy doesn’t lie there to be discovered instead it’s farmed, in real time for the benefit of the owners of Lanier’s Siren Servers.

Why am I writing this down? I’m sure that those of you reading this will have a list of books equally as interesting, if not more so. Back in November 2012 I wrote a blog post which I called “Literacy, Coproduction and Sharing: It’s what digital inclusion should be”. In it I noted that I had written 57 Blog posts since 2008 – roughly one a month – and this in turn was my personal commentary on Digital Britain. I realised that I had changed; my views on the digital divide were not what they had been in 2008 when I had eschewed the value of skills and the need of the masses to get engaged for the sake of some sort of brave new world. Re-reading those 57 posts I detected a growing cynicism on my part because when I looked around the world appeared to be where it had been in 2008. We appeared to be using the same deficit models as our starting point and we were measuring outcomes in terms of people’s ability to consume rather than people’s ability to influence and organize.

When this deficit model of inclusion looked at against the views of Lanier and Ng has to be seen as, at best, well meaning but wrong. That doesn’t mean that skills and social and shopping don’t have a place; it means that we are failing to question why we are doing this in the first place. Peter Thiel from the Founders Fund said “We wanted flying cars and we got 140 characters”. We constantly hear that we don’t have enough innovators, we don’t have enough entrepreneurs and yet we encourage a society of passive consumption. Personally I don’t think it’s something to shout about when we in the UK are the biggest on line shoppers in the world. We should be worried, we should be looking to change that; instead we strive to get the final 17% of “digitally excluded” people into the same digital cul-de-sac as the rest of us.

So I, for one, decided to move on and I’m leaving Penval behind. In the future I will focus on those technologies that I think will make a difference: 3D printing, the cloud, everything in software, shifting production to the edge, the Internet of Things. I will also focus on the digital detriment: those things that I feel work against the common good and not for it, I want to highlight those technologies that empower people, which give a voice that has to be heard, that supports people and recognises their contribution. People are not a free data feed for the “fire hose”.

Hopefully my output will continue at one per month minimum and in another four year’s time I can look back with less cynicism and see a digitally included world  of producers, participants and activists.

mary poppinsAs Dick Van Dyke says in Mary Poppins just before they jump into the chalk drawing: “You do a wink and a double blink …” Now a double blink is what I did when I read:  “HS2 could help spread high-speed broadband, minister says” in The Guardian this morning I only needed to add the wink and I could have joined Dick, the children and Mary Poppins in cartoon world. Adding benefits such as infrastructure distribution to major engineering projects is, and should be, a given side benefit though the minister in question, Simon Burns, doesn’t go into how they might differentiate the public subsidy from the private investment in order to get around the State Aid implications of this. In a desperate attempt to re-position HS2 after the demolition of the business case the government is still showing that they just don’t “get it”.

HS2 is not going to pass through my back yard so I confess to a somewhat disconnected view of the whole affair. At a push I can see the importance of central government investment in public works to stimulate the economy; at a bit more of a push I can see a benefit of a direct fast link from major cities to Heathrow though equally I can’t see that the amount of investment will yield the level of benefit claimed. What irks more than anything else though is that the government and local authorities can commit to £30+ billion of investment in a flimsy business case and yet they cannot invest more than £500m – leveraged to £1Bn eventually – in broadband technology where the business case has been repeatedly proven time after time.

On 7th January 2013, amidst a day of manic publicity on a “no news day”, we saw the launch of “The superfast and the Furious: Priorities for the future of UK broadband policy” by the Policy Exchange. The report amounted to a policy basis for leaving rural areas in the digital dark ages arguing that people don’t know how much bandwidth they use so they don’t really know what they want.  The report tries to make a case that once the current spend on broadband is over in 2015 the focus should shift to empowering consumers and businesses to make best use of the internet while creating conditions for the private sector to meet the demand through reduced regulation and long term regulatory certainty.

As evidence the report cites a literature review and a survey of 2000 people and 500 businesses but doesn’t say where the survey took place, what the split of rural to urban participants was. Simply that it was weighted to be nationally representative.

Key points where rural is mentioned as a distinguishing feature:

  • Price and reliability matter most to consumers: rural areas see reliability as more of an issue than urban or suburban areas (by 14 percentage points over urban participants) Why is that I wonder? Perhaps because it fails more often in rural areas?
  • On the issue of improved broadband over environmental protection (I guess they’re talking street cabinets here) urban and suburban participants are lumped into one for reasons not given. Virtually no difference in the responses, only 1 percentage point and based on n=875. But wait a minute, wasn’t the previous point based on n=1,752? Similarly for broadband speed over environmental issues virtually no difference.
  • On the issue of access, should everybody have broadband almost total agreement between urban and rural areas. However, where there was a question of cost, unsurprisingly a greater number of rural participants disagreed that they should pay more for access by 11% points with only 16% of rural participants thinking that they should. Are we surprise and by this?
  • Is infrastructure a priority for the public? Almost no difference in the responses between urban, suburban and rural participants. Regarding the case for government spending again almost no difference in the responses between urban and rural participants and also broad agreement that infrastructure is a top priority for business.

Rural responses are not identified in the other questions but despite broad agreement being a feature of all of the above the conclusion is that policy should focus on making the most of what we have.

The executive summary outlines the case that ending support for infrastructure after the current spending round is in line with a localism agenda and that a better policy focus would be on raising the capability of individuals.  The report argues for consumer empowerment which it interprets as helping consumers find the right supplier. The Long View talks about Smart cities, Intelligent transport and future tech and then identifies the route to connectivity for rural areas as WiFi and use of the newly released TV Spectrum. Finally the report argues the case for strengthening the role of the Minister and then highlights the importance of the consumer, the importance of retail and the need to embed connectivity into Government and mainstream business.

The report is flawed in a number of ways and its purpose is simply to justify the further isolation of the rural economy from the mainstream.

The report misrepresents the market place for superfast broadband. It’s hard to argue the case for localism when you have a centralist government that has just disempowered local people in the planning process in favour of developers. What the report ignores is that much as we parade our successful ISPs and the LLU market place it fails to address the fact that we have a single infrastructure provider of significant market power which means that ISPs only offer what is available and people only choose from what they are offered. In short, this is not an argument for stopping central investment. The report also fails to point out that of all the suppliers listed only BT has a significant wholesale offer .

The report fails to understand that the current Internet success is based on a model of consumption – not production. It talks in terms of the empowered consumer not just for broadband services but in terms of a growth in GDP driven by a nation of Internet shoppers. This view of the Internet where the majority consumes whilst the minority produces is not a long term economic driver irrespective of the speed or the symmetry of the broadband connection. Future economic success has to be based on a model of production as well as consumption and rural areas have as much a right and capactiy to participate in that economy as anybody else. The speed and symmetry of the broadband connection are the limitations on innovation that will impact on economic growth.

The report makes much of previous research and as a digest of previous work including the respected Plum report it’s worth a read. I have read the vast majority of these reports, not one of them makes the case for stopping investment or for having rural areas left out of the equation or being treated less equitably.

Another significant failure of this report is that is treats city/urban and rural as separate not only with different perceptions (which is clearly not the case) or with different needs (for which it fails to make the case) but the success of intelligent and smart cities depends on connectivity with a smart rural hinterland. Cities do not exist in isolation, they are connected with and dependent on rural areas for food, water, transit routes, skilled individuals, niche companies, artisan products, leisure facilities, carbon offset and increasingly for power supply routes. You cannot treat them as separate entities. So why would you treat them as lesser entities.

There are individual statements in this report with which you cannot disagree: you cannot disagree with regulatory certainty for instance not can you disagree with the needs of business or the expectations of Government service delivery. However the conclusions drawn by the authors are not borne out by the evidence they have collected and that is because this is a report with a political bias. A simple search on the trustees of the policy exchange reveals a body of ex Conservative ministers and Tory donors who have an agenda and to my mind that devalues this document as a foundation for policy development.

This is blog post number 57 which means that since I started, in 2008, I have achieved my objective and written one post every month, more or less. Looking back it’s a personal commentary on digital Britain and digital inclusion which spans four years and two governments. The posts track my changing views on the developing digital agenda from a time when laptops were smart accessories, phones were stupid and BlackBerry was the device of choice; the world was hyperlocal and it wasn’t particularly social;  open data was new but it wasn’t yet big.

Early in November 2012 I attended the Coproduction event at Manchester University; it was a great event with inspiring presentations, useful conversation and debate. The conversations both on the night and subsequently have added to my conviction, that we cannot continue to see digital inclusion and the economy as separate.

Smart School was a conversation of note: “The IoT raises the possibility for exploring the potential for education of a smart school; a pupil in a smart school will have an education in the social and economic potential and issues related to data and the Internet. “ The project goes further and has ambitions to: “… build on projects such as the ambient learning city to create a learning layer in the community for informal learning or storing and sharing community memories and history.”

This resonates with my thinking on a number of levels but not least because it’s about production, literacy and sharing it reflects the view of a Digital Britain that: “empowers people to do what they want to do. It lets people be creative. It lets people be productive. It lets people learn things they didn’t think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential” Steve Balmer, Chief Executive, Microsoft. (Department of Business Innovation and Skills, 2009) .

This is not a deficit view of a digital Britain which emphasises providing access to employability, to health, to education and information that the rest of us will take for granted nor does it exclude those things, it simply puts them into a different context that assumes an empowered individual within a community not a lagging individual on the periphery.

Service Systems was also a conversation of note, not least because it linked to the work of NEMODE about which I have written in a previous post. The case for service systems argues that goods dominant logic is becoming an outmoded model for many of the things that we buy and that a service dominant logic provides us with value in use and results from co-creation between the producer and the user. I strongly recommend looking at the work of Irene Ng on the implications of this for the digital economy.

Now it’s easy to pass this off as an academic exercise but I happen to believe that thinking like this underpins the real needs of a digital person in the 21st Century. As always serendipity brought me to something that crystallised my thinking: a video by Brian Solis the social media marketing phenomenon. You can watch the interview he does with John Swartz from USA Today on You Tube where he talks about producers and consumers co creating value mediated through technology. I’m not at all sure that he believes in a shift from traditional goods dominant capitalism to a service dominant culture but the interview brings into sharp focus the digital capacity that individuals will need in the new digital economy.

The themes of access and empowerment remain at the heart of digital inclusion though I often feel that access alone is regarded as sufficient moral justification; needless to say, I disagree. My thinking has become increasingly concerned with the fact that we are pursuing inclusion through the same initiatives that we have always done with a focus on the consumption of goods and services but the world is shifting to a place where the emphasis will have to be on literacy, coproduction and sharing and I have yet to be convinced that our current approaches will achieve these things.

Post Script:

I am indebted to James Duggan from Manchester University Phd Programme for sharing with me the thinking behind Smart School and also for signposting me to the paper“On value and value co-creation: A service systems and service logic perspective” by Vargo et al.

Note:

The Internet of Things (IoT) a network of things, objects and identities operating in smart places using intelligent interfaces to connect and communicate with users and social and environmental contexts. There is a short, readable paper on this from The University of Salford http://usir.salford.ac.uk/2735/ .

I would like to put in a word for people who ask questions. How often do you hear someone described as a great question provider? Are you a solutions person? Everybody loves a solution and those who provide solutions can achieve minor celebrity status.  By way of example: Ofcom’s sixth International Communications Market report declared that the UK is a nation of online shoppers with eight in ten internet users saying that they had ordered goods or services online in 2012, higher than any other European country. At worst the headline received neutral press so it must be a good thing; but as far as I can see nobody questioned why we were a nation of on line shoppers. I would suggest that it’s because the thrust of public facing digital inclusion initiatives has been based on consumption but I have no hard evidence for that though I would like to ask the question.

The need to provide solutions leads to solution led initiatives which by their very nature are generally well received. Whoever was criticized for supporting older people to get on to the Internet? What’s wrong with providing access to recycled PCs for people who are less well off?  I applaud these initiatives but I want people to ask: why are we doing this? I want people to continually ask this question because when we don’t review the rational that underpins our solution it is possible to lose sight of how we got to where we are.

Our solution led digital inclusion initiative is underpinned by one or more assumptions; take for instance the assumptions about what is digital inclusion? As far as I know digital inclusion was officially defined by UK Government in 2008 as: “The best use of digital technology, either directly or indirectly, to improve the lives and life chances of all citizens and the places in which they live”. (Communities and Local Government, 2008). Digital inclusion can be seen as desirable because if offers a range of potential benefits for the demand side user; the benefits case for the supply side user will be related but different, for instance, cost savings, efficiencies, profitability, reach and so on. At one end of the demand side benefits case Annie Dare, at the time Special Adviser to the Digital Champion, Martha Lane Fox described the benefits of digital inclusion as:

“…..providing access to employability, to health, to education and information that the rest of us will take for granted”. (Race for 2012, 2010)

At the other end of the range of demand side benefits for those who are digitally included, viz making best use of digital technology, the benefits have also been described in UK Government policy as being:

“The number one benefit of information technology is that it empowers people to do what they want to do. It lets people be creative. It lets people be productive. It lets people learn things they didn’t think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential” Steve Balmer, Chief Executive, Microsoft. (Department of Business Innovation and Skills, 2009) .

As a provider of solutions for digital inclusion do you see yourself in either of these descriptions? I posted a blog in September “Consumers as Producers – Digital Inclusion and the New Digital Reality” about the changes in the digital landscape that will, over the coming years, affect all of us. I’m not going to rehearse them here but I do have questions that I would like you to ask yourself:

How far are the definitions and benefits still valid in 2012 and how appropriate will they be moving forward for example on a 10 year, 15 year or 20 year plus timescale?

What are the trend related scenarios (Social and Economic) which illustrate the range of activities expected of a digital person in the next 25 years which illustrate the benefits case? Do we need to generate new scenarios which support the way in which we can enable people to realize benefit from digital inclusion?

Given a range of possible scenarios is the experience of all users a positive or a negative one. Is technology liberating and empowering achieving the benefits as perceived by Steve Balmer for all users or for some users is the technology dividend limited or is it even controlling access to the benefits defined by Annie Dare?

What are the underpinning assumptions about digital inclusion? Should we challenge these assumptions in the light of new economic and social models? Is an inclusion model based on consumption of services and consumer goods adequate or should we assume the production of services or life style organisation as foundation elements of digital inclusion?

Every now and then you come across something which crystallizes an idea for you. I stumbled upon a talk given by Jaron Lanier at PDF 2012 in which he talks about the impact of digital in a democracy.

What he has to say resonated with my thoughts about the new digital reality it can be paraphrased as “the means to be middle class in the information age is shifting” but, as Lanier puts it, without middle class clout there can be no democracy. As we celebrate our nation of consumers and focus on enabling the final 18% to access services that are digital by default should we not pause, step back and question the assumptions that underpin our solutions in a disruptive digital environment. Are we setting out to empower and to create producers of content or are we simply providing access for the consumption of goods and services? Go ON, ask yourself!

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