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Computer crusader - former technology minister Tony Benn

Tony Benn was the UK's technology minister when Computer Weekly's began in 1966 and he continues to campaign on IT issues

Tony Benn was the UK's technology minister when Computer Weekly began in 1966 and he continues to campaign on IT issues. Computer Weekly met him to discuss technology's past, present and future

"When one looks at the future of our society, it is communication technology that provides the central nervous system of all organisations - governmental, military and industrial. Information is the new man-made raw material upon which all societies in the future will live."

These are not the words of some dotcom visionary at the height of the internet boom, they were spoken by socialist politician Tony Benn in 1970, shortly after his spell as the UK's technology minister.

The future he talked about is here now in the shape of the internet, and Benn is impressed. "I cannot imagine a technology that has had such an impact on society - in war, in peace, in progress and in repression."

Throughout his colourful political career, Benn has been concerned with the influence of new technologies on society. Last year he was a vocal and informed opponent of the contentious Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act and, although he has now retired from Parliament, he remains passionate about the subject.

"To keep an eye on people with street cameras and integrate the information you pick up on the street with what is on a police computer, I think that is a direct threat to civil liberties. We need proper supervision of security services," he says.

Benn believes the RIP Act, which could give the state de facto access to internet messages and powers to seize encryption keys, falls short of adequate supervision.

Benn's interest in the dangers and the benefits of computer technology started in the early 1960s. A friend who worked for IBM introduced him to the work of Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Difference Engine and a man regarded as one of the founders of computing. He also read about the role Alan Turing and others played in the Second World War by building machines to decode German messages and encrypt Allied signals.

Soon Benn's political career and interest in technology combined. In 1964 he was made postmaster general in Harold Wilson's government. While in the role he set up the national data processing service.

Two years later, he became technology minister, and was a driving force behind the creation of ICL, a government-backed amalgamation of small UK computer companies, to take on the might of US giant IBM.

"I gave ICL a cheque for £2m, which I still have a photograph of somewhere," he says, ruing the demise of the UK computer industry. ICL never maintained its early gains in the hardware market and was sold to Japanese manufacturer Fujitsu in 1990. "We just let our industry go down the pan," says Benn.

In 1969, his role was expanded to include the Ministry of Power. Here Benn oversaw the creation of the first database to catalogue all the legislation relating to the use of atomic energy. Although his ministerial career ended in 1979, his personal interest in technology has not diminished.

As an avid archivist, Benn sees computers as an essential tool in maintaining his political edge. When personal computers arrived he was one of the first politicians to use them.

"My son got an early Amstrad, and in the deputy leadership election of 1981 he put all the information we had onto a computer," says Benn. "In the [Chesterfield] by-election of 1984 he ran the first computerisation of an election and all the people from the Labour party headquarters came and looked at this amazing thing - my first BBC. I have had about nine of them since."

Benn's West London office is littered with evidence of his many decades in IT. There are three PCs of different generations, an email telephone, a BBC model B, a new Palm m505, DVD players, digital video cameras, and at least three Psion organisers.

"If my Psion was lost I would be lost myself," he says. "I have put all my dairies up to 1990 on a CD-Rom which I can search and use all the time. Now, of course, I use the web and email. I am currently developing a new website."

Benn could never have anticipated the proliferation of online technology when he started out as an MP in the 1950s. But although he has seen a revolution in computer technology during his lifetime, he believes that the problems surrounding its use have remained the same through the years.

"Human beings live in the community and their hopes and fears remain over the centuries very similar," he explains. "Why was the Post Office nationalised by Charles II? He wanted to open everybody's letters by having the Royal Mail. So actually the Post Office was the birth of MI5."

Benn warns that people can become so used to omnipresent technology that they become blind to the dangers it can harbour if it is not controlled appropriately.

He says, "If somebody said this 20 years ago they would say you were paranoid. Now if you said it people would say, 'Well what's new?'. It is both wrong to be paranoid and wrong to take it for granted. You have to keep your critical faculties alive and ask questions. The democratic argument is the one that has interested me all my life. Like all power, the two questions are: What is it used for? And who controls it?"

But Benn's concerns are balanced with optimism that computers can be a force for good in the political challenges ahead of us.

"The main thing is to give people access to information which gives them some control of their future," he says. "I regard the [anti-capitalist] demonstration in Genoa as the birth of a world movement for democracy. In 1832, before the Reform Bill, Britain was run by 2% of the population - all rich men. Now the world is run by 2% of the population who are all rich men. We have got to refight the battles of the 19th and 20th centuries to get some control of our destiny. Properly used, computers, the web and modern technology can help us to do it."

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