To make Britain digital we need leaders who are part of the network, not apart from it

It’s great to see so much debate taking place on social media – and hopefully in the real world – following Martha Lane Fox’s Dimbleby Lecture broadcast on BBC1 last night. Regardless of what anyone thinks about what she said, if her talk starts a widespread debate about the role of the internet and the digital economy in the UK, then it was a success.

I completely agree with the principles and aims that Lane Fox outlined – better digital inclusion; get more women into IT; tackle ethics and privacy; better broadband; public service reform; and get more politicians to understand the opportunities and issues around digital technologies.

I’d like to think these are all issues that Computer Weekly has consistently highlighted. Let’s all get talking about them. If anyone can catalyse the debate, it’s Lane Fox, with her public profile, drive to succeed, and contacts with business and government leaders.

But I’m far less convinced about Lane Fox’s proposal for a national institution to tackle some of these issues – what she has called “Dot everyone“. It seems a very old world solution to a very 21st century challenge. It risks accusations of elitism – gathering the digerati into one great public body to tell everyone else how great digital is.

Let’s not forget that the internet became what it is due to ground-up support – nobody in positions of power or influence decided that we would all use the web, that it would become so central to everyday life for so many people. If some great public body had said that 20 years ago, it would probably have doomed the internet to failure.

Equally the criticisms of today’s internet giants – Google, Facebook, Apple, etc – and the idea that they need an institutional counterpoint ignores the fact that those companies became giants because we all use them. That doesn’t absolve any of them from criticism as they exhibit increasing tendencies towards corporate megalomania, but the great thing about the internet is not only that anyone can use it, but that anyone can stop using it. Facebook grew from nowhere because it engaged people; if we all get fed up with it and use something else, we can still make it go away.

To me, the idea of a national institution places it apart from the people it wants to influence. If there is one thing the internet has taught us, it’s that in a digital world, leaders need to be a part of the network, not apart from it.

The real challenge is that politicians need and expect a hierarchical society – indeed, they will do everything they can to protect and maintain it. If the social impact of the internet is truly ground-up, then at some point the irresistibly rising digital tide will meet the immovable hierarchical rock of institutionalised establishment, and then things get really interesting.  

Perhaps proponents of a national digital institution will say its function is just that – to be the bridge between those two forces, engaging with the establishment in terms it can understand, while empowering the network to enable change. But the danger is an establishment-backed institution instead becomes a barrier to keep the hierarchies of power at the top. We already have plenty of public institutions, and you only have to look at some, like the BBC or the NHS, to see what happens when the establishment decides it doesn’t really like them the way they are.

In the UK we have yet to see the emergence of the sort of ground-up political movement that can only exist in a digital world. The closest we’ve seen elsewhere is the Pirate Party, which came to influence in libertarian Sweden and has gathered a following more widely, winning seats in the European Parliament and 5% of the popular vote in Iceland’s 2013 election.

Perhaps that suggests the UK has not reached the digital maturity needed for that sort of change and that degree of challenge to the establishment. Plenty of people (me included) throw around the phrase “digital revolution” very easily and carelessly, when perhaps the natural process of social change is more measured. But that change will come – inevitably, inexorably, unstoppably.

As the UK gears up for what promises to be the most dramatic and unpredictable general election in a generation, we can already see signs that the public is turning against the old way of things with its rejection of two-party politics. Nonetheless, we know the country will still be led by one of only two men – both steeped in their own form of establishment background. The stirrings of ground-up change – or at least, the desire for change – are there.

A country governed by the principles of the network not the hierarchy would solve many of today’s economic challenges. A new, federated model of central and local government to address devolution, enabled by “government as a platform” technologies, is just one example. A national broadband infrastructure to connect everyone and not just the commercial needs of one or two semi-monopolistic telecoms suppliers, is another. Investment in digital skills to help tackle unemployment and prepare in advance (for once) for the automation of blue-collar jobs, is yet another. I could go on.

Whoever forms the new administration, the next five-year Parliamentary cycle will see the most digital government ever. It will also see the generation that grew up on the internet reach their late 20s and start to emerge as young business leaders and budding politicians. Many of them will be bashing their networked heads against the hierarchical walls of establishment. It’s going to happen.

So let’s keep going with the debate that Martha Lane Fox has started; let’s make noise, make headlines, broaden the network, engage with everyone. In her lecture, Martha challenged journalists and editors to do their bit. That, for sure, is a challenge I hope we can rise to.

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