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Martha Lane Fox: My life in tech

The internet entrepreneur discusses the role of tech in society, confidence in coding and encouraging young people to embrace technology

When I think about the things I have been involved in throughout my life and career, they have mostly revolved around technology. But there are many who think, and I would argue too, that technology as a sector has not exactly covered itself in glory in recent times.

I certainly don’t feel that I can honestly say – especially as someone who’s had a high profile in the UK technology scene for a while – “Great job! Well done, tech! You’ve certainly helped humanity!” That’s why I think there’s still a lot of work to do, and why I say that, for me, it’s a continual work-in-progress.

While I am not particularly active in legislation in the House of Lords, I am very active on my committee. And while politics is not exactly covering itself in glory either at this time, nor is it really addressing our problems using the tools of the modern age, I also feel that there’s a lot for me to do there too.

But one of the things I have enjoyed pursuing and want to continue driving is my belief that while we’ve all put a lot of thought into building technology businesses, we’ve been thinking a lot less about how we can most effectively use technology for the benefit of society. That was a journey that started off for me in 2009 when I was appointed digital champion for the UK, which then led me to set up the Government Digital Service.

In my view, this was an enormous opportunity – which we still have – to drive positive change and to deliver, in its broadest sense, really valuable and essential services to everyone. I still find this challenge extremely motivating.

Learning to learn from failure

The world of technology, where I come from, started off in a way with a kind of philosophy that it was great to break things and make a mess of things, because this would ultimately drive change in a positive way through “disruption” (my least favourite word ever!). Arguably, however, technology has not always done a good job of being responsible around the things that it’s breaking, and this naturally raises many important questions.

But, of course, technology does have this culture of failure at its centre, because it’s fundamentally a science where you are always testing, failing and learning from those things, and then moving on. I think I learned a lot from that because, being an entrepreneur, you fail every day, all the time – it’s almost like the default. So you have to get used to failing and you have to find your way past obstructions, over hurdles, around corners and so on.

I feel very keenly for our young people – and for all of us – and what they will have to face and deal with in the future. I am also a firm believer that a special kind of intellectual dexterity, resilience and curiosity will be fundamental and that specific skills will be needed in the area of technology. So being able to engage fully with technology – and not being frightened of it – will always be very useful.

Nurture curiosity and creativity

While I am slightly ambivalent about learning to code – I think machines are going to be doing all of that pretty soon, indeed it’s already started – I still think it’s a brilliant route into learning about and having confidence with technology. It’s also just like learning a new language, which is always a useful thing to do anyway.

“If a young person can understand technology better, and they can fall on the side of making or creating, that will certainly help them significantly in the future”

Martha Lane Fox, tech entrepreneur

I really believe that equipping oneself with technical skills – and by that, I mean not shying away from the digital world, but learning how to be curious about it, how to make and create it – will always stand you in good stead.

We often talk about young people as being digital natives, or that they have a better understanding of everything digital than we do, but I don’t think that’s true. It’s just that the game has changed. I think they simply have a different relationship with technology today because they are 25 years younger than me.

But that doesn’t mean that they can build it and own it and drive it for their own different ends – there is naturally a big difference between being a consumer and being a creator. So if a young person can understand technology better, and they can fall on the side of making or creating, that will certainly help them significantly in the future.

They will always have a head start if they can engage with the technological world around them confidently and in more depth. But whatever the future may hold for us – and for our young people with regard to technology – I do feel deeply that it’s going to be a very long time before computers become “human”. In the meantime, we should all double-down on being human ourselves.

For me, that goes back to being values-driven, to family, to kindness and being generous, but also to empathy, the personal connections you create, the interactions you have with people, the mental dexterity that you can bring to solving problems and understanding what it is to be a human being while living in the world today.

It’s not just about solving problems through code – it’s about intellectual curiosity, building resilience and being wide-ranging.

The extract above, by Martha Lane-Fox, is from the book “A Few Wise Words”, released on 16 November, which conveys extraordinary stories of success from 22 exceptional individuals and their most inspirational advice. 

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