A latter day Cannery Row; filtering the cybercrud

On Tuesday I chaired a debate between the proponents of PEGI, the European rating standard proposed by the Games Industry and the supporters of the rating system run by the British Board of Film Classification at the Westminster Media Forum seminar on the UK Computer Games Industry. The UK has now slipped from 3rd to 4th as a global player, overtaken by Canada, with its targetted tax incentives for the jobs of the future.  

The discussion was “vigorous” and it was clear that the way forward is, as recommended by Dr Tanya Byron, to bring together the best features of both. However, it also revealed the weaknesses of our obsession with using the processes of the past to try to prevent our children from buying “adult” games on-line from local outlets. That approach is relevent only because most of them lack the bandwidth to download, let alone play the high resolution, multi-player, role playing games that are now big revenue earners on the far side of the world. More-over those games are for all ages and include mind-blowing, socially inclusive, media media edutainment and learning experiences, not just low resolution, introverted, adolescent brutality.

I had been planning to punningly entitle this blog “rating wars” – because one of the biggest barriers to access to globally competitive content is now the way the UK business rates system blocks investment in local “islands of fibre” and radio mesh networks. These are enabling communities around the world, but not within the UK, to enter a world in which social networking, role playing games and life-learning learning are coming together in ways which make Second Life look like the Beano. 

At the Forum one of Lachlan McKinnon’s (see my previous “guest” blog) colleagues from Abertay helped introduce discussion on the skills needs of the games industry – already 40% maths, physics and computer science graduates. Then one of the leading games producers, working with Skillset on schools programmes, described how kids from a sink estate in Liverpool had moved more rapidly towards enthusiasm over complex mathematical concepts than the those in the same age group from a “centre of academic excellence” where game playing was actively discouraged.

The penny finally dropped. 

The mastery of complex role playing games, let alone their design and programming, requires and rewards the same mental stretching as sophisticated economic and financial models – and the mind-blowing concepts of “extreme” mathematics and physics.

And unless we give such opportunities to many more of our children, the UK will drop out of the Knowledge Economy.

Last year I was chairman of the Real Time Club, the industry dining club for innovators and iconoclasts, for its 40th Anniversary. My theme was “Life Begins at 40” – 40 megs synchronous to the bedroom. The Ciao Review talks of 100 megs, but I doubt that many of those responding to his review appreciate the need for synchronous conections to encourage revenue earning inter-active creativity, as opposed to revenue destroying streamed piracy.

On thursday morning I was at a meeting to plan the forward programme for the EURIM Knowledge Economy Group. This will begin with an exercise to identify those MPs whose majorities are less than the jobs in their constituencies that could vanish if a games company, research centre or other “knowledge factory” decided to “emigrate”. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France and several of the US states are now actively (and successfully) targetting businesses that depend on the creativity of a handful of employees with access (including from home) to synschronous broadband. We need to do likewise.

On thursday evening, at the ISPA summer reception I heard from some of those present just how far behind the curve are our current UK plans for investment in next generation networks, and more particularly local access. One supposed reason is the desire of incumbents protected by business rates (and other asymetric legislation and regulation) to milk past investments. I suspect that another, and perhaps more important, is pressures on the incumbent to provide, as nearly as possible, the same level of service across the the whole of the UK.     

However, on friday morning, during the opening session of the UK Internet Governance Forum my spirits rose. It was the first time I had seen Sriti Vadeera, the minister who commissioned the Ciao review, in action. I came away with the view that she understands what is at stake far more than many of those who are seeking to lobby her.

But time is not on our side.

Two years ago, Lord Puttnam said we had 18 months to get our act together with regard to the skills needed for a multi-media world. We are already living on borrowed time.  

We have to kick start the reform of our high level education and training system to better produce (quality not just quantity) those capable of handling extreme complexity (e.g the STEM subjects including computing science) and to update their skills regularly through life. If we daly more than a few more months we will, despite recession, have to import the skills to run the Olympics and be in terminal economic and social decline thereafter.

But those we educate will then emigrate unless we also kick start investment in next generation broadband: e.g a three year business rates holiday, with 100% capital allowances on top – the classical Keynesian approach to recession.

It is nearly seven years since my futurology paper on the 50th Anniversary of LEO, when I warned that we could well end up a latter day Cannery Row, filtering the cybercrud that floats our way, unable to even access, let alone be part of, the rich and vibrant mainstream of the global, multi-lingual, multi-cultural Internet-enabled world that is around the corner. 

I began that paper by comparing the Digital and Optical Kondratieff waves with those for the Combustion Engine and the Wireless. I fear we have now moved from the Wall Street Crash, alias Dot Com bust, to the start of Great Depression – to a similar timescale.

However, I pointed out in that paper it was during the Great Depression that previously over-hyped technologies changed the world in ways that none had foreseen. The impact of the Internet over the past decade will have been as nothing compared to that over the next decade. The challenge is to ensure that UK plc is part of that future.