Today I spoke in the House of Lords in a debate I led on the need for greater digital understanding in the U.K. It was a debate allotted 150 minutes and there were 35 speakers so some people were frustrated as they had more to say than their 3 minutes allowed. I feel as though I opened the flood gates so that’s interesting and I’m sure my colleagues will want to continue to address the issues raised.
Here is what I said in the longer time I had as the person who kicked off the debate.
“The last time I secured a debate in your lordships’ chamber, it was to mark the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web. We marveled at having Bach and da Vinci at our fingertips; we celebrated 94-year-olds on social media. The noble Lord Giddens, called the internet “the greatest transformative force in history bar none”.
However, even on that day we were cautious. As I said then, “we are sleepwalking into assuming that the platform underpinning so much of our daily life is not changing”.
I am sad to report that nearly all of us, including me, have spent too much of the past three years continuing to sleepwalk. And if that last debate was a birthday party, today’s must be a midlife crisis.
We are in the midst of some major geopolitical shifts. The planet is hotter than it has been in 115,000 years. Populism has seen a worrying resurgence, both at home and abroad. Stagnating wages mean young people are earning thousands less than generations before them. And alongside these, we are living through the staggering transformation of the internet age.
Technology is changing our world at a speed we have never seen before, a speed which I think will now never be reversed. That is a challenge, but – if we allow ourselves to awaken – it is also a source of tremendous opportunity. If we seize them, if we own them, we can harness the power of these technologies to address the other great challenges we face.
I am calling today for improved digital understanding because I believe it is central to our ability to create better outcomes for more people in the next century.
For as long as we’ve had the internet, we’ve had the internet’s promise.
The internet promised us energised democracies and a world where we could all speak to one another. And it has fulfilled that promise: today we can register to vote, petition the government and support candidates who match our values with just a few keystrokes.
But in addition to that, we now have emotionally manipulative advertisements that target us based on our gender, our faith, and even our sexual preferences. The Vote Leave campaign last year spent around 98% of its budget on digital adverts – and boasted that one advantage of doing so was that it was poorly scrutinised by the political media. And just this morning Facebook revealed that it had found $100,000 of political ads bought by Russian trolls during the US election and I am sure there will be more revelations to come.
The internet promised us flexible, creative work that could be done anywhere. Again, the internet delivered: today we have the biggest tech industry in Europe, with 1.5 million people employed and nearly £7 billion invested last year alone.
But alongside that we also have Amazon delivery drivers receiving as little as £3 an hour without time for breaks, while CEO Jeff Bezos’ personal wealth surpasses $92 billion. That was enough money to make him the world’s richest man this past summer.
And not a day goes by without more and more headlines wrestling with the nature of artificial intelligence and how it will affect the world of work – enormous and extraordinary leaps in quantum computing and machine learning somehow feel dislocated from people who will inevitably be affected by the ways in which these innovations are deployed.
The internet promised us free access to the world’s information. We now live in a world where every single piece of art at the Tate has its own webpage – but also one where fake news is an artform, slickly produced by those who would profit from our confusion.
The Internet promised access to new ways of learning and creativity for our children and again in many ways this has been true – learning has democratized and become more accessible, with everything from Khan Academy to the wonderful resources created by the BBC. But who in the early days of the web would have imagined the creation of Instagram and foreseen its damaging effects on young people’s self esteem?
Perhaps for a dot com dinosaur like me, one of the most surprising developments is the domination of our experience of the internet by a handful of companies. Twenty years ago the rise of these so called platform businesses was not anticipated, and now the flows of money, power and usage is controlled in a way far removed from the open, distributed, fragmented early years.
We can point to these tech giants, the monopoly platforms, the wily political strategists who have shaped these phenomena and try to blame them for all this. But the truth is, they only created the hollow vessels. We are the users.
Every time we use the internet, we leave a data trail of valuable information to be transformed into personalised and targeted advertising. That may be a tantalising holiday home in Europe for some of us, but for the poor and vulnerable it’s more likely to be a high-interest loan or a bad insurance deal.
Every time we like and share some outrageous piece of invective or agitation, we encourage the creation of even more content which erodes the factual base of our public conversation.
Every time we tap our phone to choose the convenience of a short ride home, we buy into the idea that it’s OK for a driver to have no job security or holiday pay.
To paraphrase John Lanchester recently in the London Review of Books…WE are the product.
And we are now seeing the outcomes of these contributions.
Expertise has been devalued, and emotion reigns supreme. Take a look at climate change: the internet has helped drive the exponential increase in our information, but the public’s ability to accept it has slid. YouTube videos with titles like “What They Haven’t Told You About Climate Change” and “The Great Climate Change Hoax” have driven millions of views. Is it any wonder that between the UK, Australia, Germany, Canada, and the US, the average partisan divide over the climate crisis is nearly 40 points?
We have let these things come upon us, but it is not too late to wake up. If we want to change this dynamic and shape the future, we need to recapture some of the internet’s original promise and more of its positive transformative power. That means we need to understand – at all levels of society – what our digital world really is. We need to address the challenges that already exist and preempt the ones we don’t know about.
We live our digital lives this way because we have the skills to do so. 91% of us in the UK have the ability to use the internet. This is a remarkable achievement – and it’s important to continue the work to close the remaining gap and include those who are still without the skills or the access to use the internet.
But we also need to move beyond skills to understanding. 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. Around two-thirds of our digitally skilled population can shop and bank online – but a third don’t make any checks before entering their personal or financial information online. 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. The list goes on.
Becoming a nation of people with digital understanding will be different and more complicated than becoming a nation of people with digital skills. For starters, digital skills are tangible and teachable: download this app, program this device. They also reinforce the idea that digital is something we do – time-bound and transactional.
But in a world where we spend more time online than we do asleep and where everything from our televisions to our kettles can connect to the internet, digital is something we are. Understanding is not a race to be run and won. It is a lifelong process of learning, one unique to each of us.
And we in this House – all of us with the privilege and responsibility of playing a role in public life – have a particular duty. We must ask ourselves: do we have the digital understanding to provide the leadership we need in this time of technological change?
I cannot stress how vital it is that we – parliamentarians, policymakers – absorb and engage with the realities of how digital technologies work. We must see where our country can make the most of them, and be alert to the potential dangers.
In recent months we have heard frankly asinine comments such as ‘enough is enough’ or “we must scrap end-to-end encryption” the very system which keeps our personal information secure. This is alarmist and a disservice to the people we serve. Just as it would not be acceptable for a minister not to understand how her departmental budget works, it is not acceptable for her not to understand how technology affects her brief.
This is not an insurmountable task. We live in 2017, not 1817 – and we have form to follow.
Our Government Digital Service has shown how digital understanding can be applied to the world of government, from scrapping our paper car tax discs to simplifying the appointment for power of attorney. It has also shown us what not to do: it saved us £4.1bn by not creating expensive and complicated apps and salvaging doomed projects like Universal Credit.
But the good work being done to help the government modernise – and to make it work for people who live their lives digitally – is being dismantled. Departmental silos are creeping back, replicating cost and inefficiency and, most importantly, letting down citizens.
GDS is celebrated and copied around the world. Last year we were ranked top for digital government by the UN. How ironic if we fail to recognise and nurture this great asset.
There are other pioneers making digital understanding a reality.
The Open University – which I declare my interest in as chancellor – makes digital literacy integral to its students’ experience. OU students graduate able to manage their digital identities, separate fact from fiction and make sense of what they find online. And it’s sharing its experience with other institutions, at the forefront of sector-wide initiatives like JISC helping to support other universities to develop their own digital literacy.
The Citizens Advice Bureau – a reassuring hand on our high streets since the war – now has a digital dashboard showing what advice people are searching for and using that to improve its own services. And it’s helping its millions of users navigate the new challenges of their lives online – like Facebook scams and online identity theft.
London has just appointed its first Chief Digital Officer, making our capital a role model for making the city digital. That doesn’t mean shiny new gadgets and fancy innovation; it means using technology so we can recycle better, have fewer potholes and better parking.
This is the work of adventurous minds who are showing what real digital understanding can mean in practice and how we can use this understanding to shape our society for the public good.
I call on government to support and amplify the good things that are happening and to bring these people together in a more structured way. How about we create a network of public organisations that can more tangibly build our nation’s digital understanding – much of their work is admirable but it is coordination and focus which will embed digital understanding in the fabric of our lives. Perhaps too this network could have a more formal role as a resource for elected and public officials needing support.
But while we need this work at a granular level, we need to do it with a purpose and a destination. We need to know what kind of digital world we are trying to shape.
For this reason, I welcome the government’s work to develop a Digital Charter. It presents an opportunity for us to argue about and articulate what we want – to design the moral compass for our digital age.
The digital landscape as we know, is currently monopolised by a few American based platforms (though the Asian digital tigers may soon join them). They are steeped in the worldview of Silicon Valley with its love of the first amendment and libertarianism.
The Charter is a chance for us to say what we want for Britain. I hope by leading on this, we will encourage each nation to build a Charter of its own – an articulation of the digital nation it wants to be.
And then we can all, globally, find our commonalities – and create the basis of a kind of Geneva Convention for the web. I believe that we must come together and attempt to put some universal principles in place for the next phase of our digital world.
No matter how we move forward, we need to do so in modern ways. We don’t need a Select Committee on Digital Understanding beavering away in a closed-off room – we need smart people working in creative and agile ways to get to the root of what’s really going on.
Difficult or not, this work must be done – and it must be done now. It’s an issue of fairness: it’s simply not fair that only a few people understand this technology, and they are using it to take advantage of billions who do not.
None of this means we can rest in the mission to bring basic digital skills to everyone or high-quality broadband to the whole country. It simply means we need to expand our goal; not either or, but both.
If there is anyone still struggling to comprehend the universality of tech in our lives, I would recommend taking a closer look at today’s list of speakers. We have a composer, a neuroscientist, the astronomer royal, a filmmaker, businesswomen and a bishop – not to mention the man who brought us Amstrad.
I am heartened by the fact that, as this chamber debates digital understanding for everyone in the UK, we are not simply hearing from those whose careers, like mine, have been built around technology. Members from all parts of the house will speak. And if a 700-year-old institution can see the value of digital understanding, I have no doubt the rest of the British public can too.”