The digital revolution is unstoppable, inevitable - and bigger than Brexit

Let’s start with the disclosure. I voted for the UK to remain in the European Union (EU). My reasoning at the time was that the EU is an over-bureaucratic, dysfunctional organisation that ought to celebrate the difference between European nations not attempt to homogenise them; its leaders are unaccountable and driven by a federalist ideology, not by what’s best for EU citizens. But the UK would be bonkers not to be a part of it – to be leading a process of change to make the EU everything it could and should be; that it would be economic suicide to leave.

Computer Weekly, reflecting the majority of our readers, came out in favour of remaining as well – a choice driven by the team here and feedback from our audience, not by my personal perspective.

The UK tech community overwhelmingly wanted to stay in the EU, and remains in a state of uncertainty and confusion about what its future may be outside the EU.

But we’re leaving, and that’s that.

Brexiteers tell us to look on today’s invoking of Article 50 as an opportunity – and they might be right. The problem is that we just don’t know – until we see the outcome of the divorce negotiations, it’s impossible to say one way or the other.

The difference in opinion right now lies in whether you have faith in Theresa May and her government to finalise a relationship with the EU that is as good – or at least nearly as good – as we have now.

For the tech sector, that means easy access to skilled workers, open data flows, no tariffs, minimum red tape, common technical and data standards, access to the digital single market, shared research and development, agreements on data protection, copyright and patents – and more. Basically, what we have now.

If you believe the prime minister can deliver all that – then Brexit is an opportunity, not to be feared. If she can’t – we have a problem. We can but hope the pro-Brexit crowd are justified in their faith.

Everything I hear from government insiders suggests that it genuinely wants to deliver what is needed to put the UK at the forefront of the digital revolution – which means delivering on what’s needed with the EU. We can but hope.

But there is little doubt in my mind that few of those leading the Brexit charge understand the context of the digital revolution and it what it means long-term for the UK socially, culturally and economically.

The last 20 years have given us a glimpse of how digital breaks down borders, ignores nation states, creates new global relationships and collaboration, empowers and enables education, generates innovation, delivers transparency and brings people of different cultures together around the world.

The process of societal change introduced by the digital revolution is in its very early days; it is unstoppable and inevitable, just as it was in the industrial revolution. Importantly, it is bigger than politics, and as such it will be resisted – ferociously at times – by the vested interests it threatens.

Those vested interests are largely the beneficiaries of the 19th century hierarchies that were created by the industrial revolution. The internet generation is networked; it rejects hierarchies and will eventually reform societies – well, most of them – on that principle. Tomorrow’s leaders will be part of the network, not apart from the network.

Digital law specialist and blogger Heather Burns wrote an excellent article outlining the complexities and challenges for the tech community from Brexit, but I disagreed with her on one important point. She says Brexit is “anti-digital” and calls it “an attack on digital culture”.

I can’t see that Brexit is a conscious and knowing attempt to prevent the digital revolution, as I think Heather implies. Instead, I see it as a symptom of the wider attempt by those vested interests to prevent or delay the implications of the digital revolution – an attempt that is mostly an instinctive, unconscious reaction to the changes they see taking place in the world around them; changes that threaten their worldview.

Donald Trump and his supporters are another symptom of the same backlash.

Decades from now, historians will explain the tumultuous changes in Europe and the US in the early 21st century in the same way history books now characterise textile riots in the industrial revolution. We use a 19th century word – Luddites – to describe people who resist the tide of digital change. Luddites were the textile workers who revolted against the effects of the industrial revolution. Today, the Luddites are the ones making decisions.

Then, the Luddites could not see or understand the wider changes going on around them, and the inevitability of that process. Today, our modern Luddites are not so different, even if they have greater power to try to delay it.

Brexit’s impact on the UK could last 10, 20 years or more – a generation. The impact of the digital revolution will last far longer and be more profound – a century, perhaps more. For all the amazing and life-changing innovations technology has delivered across the last generation, we are still at a point equivalent to walking in front of a new-fangled motor car waving a red flag to warn passers-by.

Artificial intelligence, the internet of things, bioengineering, genetics – these are in their infancy. Only yesterday we learned that a man paralysed from the neck down moved his hand by the power of thought after scientists bypassed his severed nerves and connected his brain to his muscles electronically. This is only the beginning.

The UK faces two years of uncertainty and division. At its end, we will know whether Brexit is an opportunity or a disaster. If negotiations are successful, its architects will be in power for years to come. If not, they will be consigned to the political scrapheap and the uncertainty and division will continue. It is not going to be easy.

But there is a bigger, longer game at play here, driven by the digital revolution – and it is unstoppable. At worst, Brexit will delay the inevitable. At best, it could accelerate it. We can but hope.

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