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Martha Lane Fox warns UK is 'sleepwalking' through digital disruption

During a House of Lords debate, Martha Lane Fox claimed the UK has been “sleepwalking” through digital change and urged for more to be done to promote “digital understanding”

Martha Lane Fox has claimed the UK has been “sleepwalking” through the digital revolution.

During a House of Lords debate, Lane Fox told the house that although people “marvelled” at the information available after the birth of the internet, not enough has been done since and more needs to be done to ensure UK citizens at all levels of society have an “understanding” of digital. “I am sad to report that nearly all of us, including me, have spent too much of the past three years continuing to sleepwalk,” she said.

The pace of change in the technology industry has led to technology being used more widely across the world, as well as in everyday life, and Lane Fox claimed this change could “never be reversed”.

Both benefits and challenges have been presented by digital transformation, and according to Lane Fox, ensuring everyone has “digital understanding” is the only way to ensure technology will be beneficial for everyone in the future.

But Lane Fox highlighted “digital understanding” was not the same as having digital skills. Being able to use technology, devices and the internet is something many people can do, but many do not understand the implications of cyber attacks, phishing or online safety. “Becoming a nation of people with digital understanding will be different and more complicated than becoming one with digital skills,” she said.

“Nearly all UK internet users have the digital skills to use a search engine, but only half know how to distinguish between search results and adverts. More than 1.4 million of us work in tech-related jobs, but as the recent WannaCry attack showed us, hardly anyone is investing the time, resources or expertise to keep our systems safe. This list could go on forever.”

Being prepared for digital change

Computer science graduates, despite their skills, have some of the highest unemployment rates when leaving university, and a basic understanding of technology is becoming necessary for all job roles. However, many people still lack the understanding of how much their lives are being affected by tech.

Though the government is using the Government Digital Service (GDS) as well as its commitment to broadband roll-out to make it easier for the UK public to access and use digital services, Lane Fox stated technology was still promoting as much bad as it was good, such as “emotionally manipulative advertisements”, zero-hours contracts for those fulfilling rapid deliveries demands and tech giants holding the monopoly on parts of the market.

“For a dotcom dinosaur like me, one of the most surprising developments is the domination of our experience of the internet by a handful of companies,” said Lane Fox.

But part of the responsibility lies with the user, and those who do not have an understanding about the digital footprint they are leaving behind can be vulnerable.

Personalisation born out of personal data can manipulate people into spending money or believing false news. “We have let these things come upon us, but it is not too late to wake up,” she said.

Advice for the future  

As well as continuing with work on broadband across the UK to keep everyone connected, Lane Fox advised that the Lords themselves grew their digital understanding to help lead the UK in decisions relating to technological change.

She also suggested the government share advice with other organisations and develop a structure through which those working towards spreading digital understanding could reach more people.

“How about we create a formal network of public organisations that can tangibly build our nation’s digital understanding? Much of their work is admirable but it is coordination and focus that will embed digital understanding into the fabric of our lives,” she said.

“We need to know what kind of digital world we are trying to shape. For this reason, I welcome the government’s role in developing a digital charter. It presents an opportunity for us to argue and articulate what we want and design a moral compass for our digital age.”

Those without digital skills or internet access are falling behind in society, and Lane Fox said digital understanding was as much about creating a fairer society as it was about promoting the use of technology – and that those aiming to spread digital awareness should be out in the open rather than “beavering away in a closed-off room”.

Some Lords present at the debate stated the current curriculum in the UK was partially to blame, despite the government implementing a computing curriculum to teach children between the ages of five and 16 concepts such as coding and computational thinking.

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Kenneth Baker said computing had been “virtually squeezed out” of the curriculum, and the DCMS’s digital strategy would act only as a “signpost” nonetheless undermined by a lack of skilled workers.

“There is no joined-up government between what is being done in education and what they hope for in their policy,” he said.

Michael Storey said teachers and schools were not always given the tools to provide the skills industry needs.

“Schools do not equip people to adapt to change or to be questioning and critical about the internet,” he said. “As a country, our basic and advanced skills in IT have increased year by year, but this does not mean people have a digital understanding.”

Digital skills and digital understanding

Beeban Kidron said distinguishing the difference between digital skills and digital understanding was important in ensuring people grow up with the traits they needed to safely use technology, adding that the UK needs “a clear articulation of our values and a commitment to making our children, businesses and institutions – and our Parliament – digitally competent”.

Many believe the only way to provide people with the digital skills and understanding needed to function in a tech-driven future is to have more collaboration between schools, businesses and the government.

Read more on IT education and training

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This comment submitted on behalf of Graham Long

Prior to the summer recess, the chairman of the House of Lords economic affairs committee called for an enquiry into whether this country funds post-school education and particularly STEM education, fairly(1). STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is the skills base that our country needs to secure a high tech future. Some add medicine to the skill set, making it STEMM.(2)

My own alma mata, Bradford University, long ago dropped the undergraduate degree, Applied Physics, that I studied in the early 70s, in favour of more popular subjects like Media Studies, so I decided to find out how well our politicians and institutions are doing as STEM role models for today’s school leavers. You will be shocked by what I found.

Out of our 650 MPs, only 26 (4%)(3) have some kind of STEM education background and only 9% of the candidates in the 2017 General Election(4) had a STEM background. In the Lords, 17% studied STEM subjects at University(5) and 15% of EU MEPs have a degree in science or technology(6).

There has only ever been one Prime Minister with a STEM degree (Margaret Thatcher, who had degrees in Chemistry and Law)(7). The current Digital Minister in DCMS (Matthew Hancock) has a PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) degree(8) and the previous Digital Minister in the Conservative government (Ed Vaizey) has a degree in History(9). The current Minister of State for Universities, Science and Innovation (Jo Johnson) has a degree in Modern History plus an MBA(10).

In Germany, where engineers proudly have that title displayed with their phone book entry, the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has a degree in Physics and a Doctorate in Quantum Chemistry(11). The current EU Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation (Carlos Moedas) has a degree in Civil Engineering(12). Interestingly, Germans refer to MINT rather than STEM: Mathematics, Information Science, Natural Science and Technology(13).

If our politicians are not up to speed on STEM, have our institutions got the balance right? The Director General of the BBC (Tony Hall) has a PPE degree(14) and the BBC’s technology correspondent (Rory Cellan-Jones) has an MA in Modern and Medieval Languages(15). Commercial television fares better with ITN/Channel 4’s Science Editor (Tom Clarke) having degrees in Zoology and Entomology(16) and Sky News’ Health and Science Correspondent (Tom Moore) has a degree in Genetics(17).

Only 13% of FTSE 100 companies CEOs(18) have backgrounds in engineering and PPE (not STEM) remains the “golden degree” for senior Civil Servants(19). It seems STEM is still seen by the Establishment as a messy, geeky, oily world compared to the clean, organised, comfortable worlds of politics, banking and law.

Apprenticeships have recently been hailed as an additional route for feeding more STEM skills into our economy, but the National Union of Students have concerns that some UK employers view apprenticeships as another source of cheap labour(20). On the other hand, Germany provides a nationwide dual academic plus practical training system for apprenticeships, nationally validated by the Handelskammer(21).

The conclusion? The UK Establishment is maintaining the status quo with PPE and similar skill sets for politicians, CEOs and administrators whilst paying lip service to STEM skill set requirements, using the words, but not following through with actions or hiring. Rather than a high tech future created by us, we will become reliant on foreign technology if politicians and the Establishment don’t quickly wake up to the UK’s dire STEM skills shortage as a national crisis(22) and change the unhelpful national stereotype of STEM subjects(23).


Graham Long

Honiton, Devon