Beyond the backlash, it's bright

It is time for policy-makers to move beyond the backlash brought on by the Internet's crazier days and appreciate how e-democracy...

It is time for policy-makers to move beyond the backlash brought on by the Internet's crazier days and appreciate how e-democracy will affect our lives in the next 20 years

Suddenly, it all went quiet. The heat surrounding two years of Internet-buzz vanished, to be replaced by po-faced cynicism and an "I told you so" smirk. You dotcom investors, you technophiles, you geeks: what fools you were.

Mobile telephone company Orange built its entire brand on one simple idea: optimism. The tech future was bright, partly because it was orange, but mostly because new toys and gadgets made the world better.

Now this optimism is being challenged, following the terrorist attacks on 11 September in the US - a symbolic turning point; after which we have all reappraised out attitudes to life and business.

Yet, now more than ever, it is time for those thinking about public policy to move beyond the backlash and to appreciate again the profound implications that IT will have on the lives of most people in this country during the next 20 years.

Why now? Three reasons. First, because we are back in 1991. As any follower of the tech-craze knows, all the really interesting things happened between about 1992 and 1995. This means that bright thinking about the potential for doing things differently matters precisely because this is the beginning of the next phase.

Second, as Internet expert Tom Steinberg has argued, this next phase will be the era of flying cars. By this, Steinberg means we are approaching a time when technological advances assumed to be the preserve of sci-fi become real.

Near-universal access to the network; video on demand; Internet links for your washing machine; constant high bandwidth connections to the home; video phones; all are here or coming fast. Cars may not take to the sky, but technological innovation has not stopped because the thinking public have become grumpy about the Internet.

And third, the fundamental arguments have not changed. Nations that exploit new technology gain significant competitive advantage.

To be fair, the Labour Government has yielded to no one in its continuing enthusiasm for all things shiny and e. Yet its attitude remains a little wrong headed. Its newer policies lack serious ambition: in effect, policy-makers are talking big, yet thinking little.

Take democracy online as an example. Last month minister for trade and industry Douglas Alexander made a well-received speech launching the world's first government e-democracy strategy. And, do not get me wrong, people were pleased: e-democracy pioneer Steve Clift even called the speech "the shot that rang round the world".

Sadly, in all the excitement, everyone seems to have forgotten to look at what the strategy actually contained.

Look closely and you will see that it is not really a strategy at all. It consists of, well, an advertising campaign on the magnificent potential of e-democracy. A fabulous prospect, but in reality just of a set of TV ads exhorting more people to use the Web.

Beyond that, the e-minister's speech set out six nice-sounding principles for UKOnline (www.ukonline.gov.uk) while containing a disappointingly narrow definition of what the Government's agenda was about.

There seem to be two things the Government is keen on: electronic voting and new ways of doing online consultations. Both have potentially profound implications, but both suggest the Government sees e-democracy as little more than a band-aid for a democratic system perceived to be in some sort of torpor.

The strategy is problematic for two reasons. First, it is talking big because few people have claimed the Internet would achieve much without change in the way politics is run. The bottom line is that e-democracy is being set up for a heavy fall if it is to shoulder the whole burden of saving democracy.

Second, it is thinking small because the Internet offers more expansive potential for democratic renewal than voting and consultation exercises.

For e-democracy you can read any number of small-thinking initiatives in this space. The thorniest problems thrown up by a decade of technological change - what to do about intellectual property rights, who owns the network itself, what impact it will have on our democracies, what it will mean for productivity - remain unsolved.

This is a debate that has barely begun and moving quickly beyond the backlash is critical to making it work. Big changes require broad horizons and broad horizons need optimism and vision.

So next time you meet a sceptic tell him that the backlash against the backlash starts here and that the future remains bright.

James Crabtree runs the Isociety research project at the Industrial Society

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