Time for a New Web
Taking Stock of Wellbeing
This year’s Dimbleby lecture by Sir Tim Berners-Lee was extremely thought-provoking. He spoke with calm, erudite passion about the need for a mid-course correction to the current direction of travel of the internet. The technical insights were fascinating, as would be expected from the man credited with one of the most extraordinary inventions of modern times. That aside, there was a profound message (come warning) that is hard to ignore for anyone concerned with the simple question of how we can best look after each other in times of change.
Notably, amongst the audience was Martha Lane-Fox. The lecture she gave in 2015 now seems eerily prescient of the 2019 message. The common denominator being, we need to pause and think very carefully about what we’re doing with this amazing tool we so often take for granted. Martha Lanes-Fox’s lecture, an exquisite exhortation on why we should understand the internet more deeply, also touched on the public servant’s duty to embrace digital tools to better meet the needs of citizens.
Social Isolation is on the Rise
The subtext then and now is a call to action for social equality in the digital age. The parallels between 2015 and 2019 were clear as Berners-Lee laid out a measured discourse on why, when it comes to the web, we can and should expect better from each other, companies and government. For something with such potential to be a force for good, it can be perplexing to witness how it is being used to misinform, mislead and harm. The “thorns” on the rose being fake news, mindless trolling and a propensity on the part of the major platforms to misuse the personal data of unwitting users.
Without mentioning the “B” word, 2019 is also destined to be a year remembered in the UK, one way or another, for the outcome of the election. One of the main parties is championing the idea of free broadband for all households. Given the obvious cohesion between the 2015 and 2019 lectures, it would seem the Labour policy geeks are either onto something meaningful or are undertaking an act of extraordinary cynicism in an effort to secure votes.
Now that the promise has officially made it into the election manifesto, it has notched up the heat on a debate that would no doubt be close to the heart of the 2015 and 2019 Dimbleby Lecturers. At a time when social isolation is on the rise and shows little sign of abating, there is something ear-catchingly quirky about a policy that seeks to remove barriers to digital inclusion. At the end of the day, good policy is good policy regardless of whose voice is singing the melody. Like the rising tide that raises all boats, everyone ends up winning.
People Make Places – Even Digital Ones
The ensuing debate about the tens of billions it may cost to implement such a policy is a healthy one. We need to weigh the plight of the digitally excluded against an argument for radical state intervention. In doing so it seems reasonable to at least consider a subtle 21st-century argument for the possible re-nationalisation of a vital service. As with most deeply entrenched social issues, the causes of social isolation are complex. This is certainly true for one group in particular. There are an estimated 4 million citizens over the age of 65 in the UK (Age UK Report 2018) who have never used the internet. This is the same demographic who are most likely to need longterm help and support from health and social care services.
We Get the Internet We Deserve
What gives the idea an extra edge is a government-backed infrastructure project to accelerate the development of broadband would almost certainly boost the economy of a country seeking to find its place in the new industrial era. Britain trails other leading economies by some distance when it comes to the provision and leveraging of high-speed internet, domestically and commercially.
Near neighbours such as France, Italy and Ireland all fair better according to the latest OECD data. Full fibre broadband, along with 5G wireless technology are the sleepers that support the tracks on which the digital economy runs. People need an affordable and accessible means of engaging with and navigating the digital world not only to keep pace with social change but also to maintain a viable level of wellbeing. This being so, why shouldn’t access to the internet be considered a basic requirement like water, food and shelter?