This morning, I had the enviable honour of joining Facebook, Google, and RIM on a panel discussion in front of the 6th annual Parliament and Internet conference (I had my poshest frock on and everything).
Although the guys on security stopped me from bringing my soapbox into Portcullis House with me, I did get an opportunity to talk about rural broadband, the humanisation of the web, and the arrogance of the present, I also managed to squeeze a tenuous Spiderman joke in and overall I had a lot of fun. Here’s my speech in full:
“I’d like to start by trying to confuse you with a contradiction – the technology revolution is both over and just beginning. It’s over because we’ve spent a long time getting used to technology being around and becoming part of our everyday lives and it’s just beginning because, only now that technology is so engrained in how we live, are the real opportunities being presented.
We know from our own studies and anecdotal research that in general, most people go home to better technology (faster, more recent) than they are provided with at work. People generally enjoy a rich technological experience in their personal lives, shopping on-line, enjoying entertainment, playing games and communicating with friends, but unfortunately this experience is not always mirrored in the workplace with the constraints imposed by corporate budgets, security concerns and in some cases, over-zealous IT management. To call this a missed opportunity is like saying Facebook is marginally successful.
Please understand that all of this does not discount the challenge we continue to face in this country around closing the digital divide, but it is an acknowledgement that the gap is closing thanks in no small part to the continued efforts of champions like Martha Lane Fox and her team with Race Online 2012.
That being said, we know people use technology effectively for many aspects of their lives and those of you with children will see just how pervasive technology has become. From my own experience, I watch my son with great interest as he just adapts and integrates technology and the internet into his world. For him, technology (the web, the Xbox, the mobile phone) are no different to him than the TV, books or traditional toys and he integrates all of them into his everyday life with equal enthusiasm and interest. But I want to stop short with that example, because I fear it runs the risk of reinforcing one of the great myths that actually I would rather dispel than support and that is that these technologies are perceived to only be accessible or useful to younger generations and those of us who find ourselves, well, let’s just say, on the wrong side of youth are left behind or left out. But, time and time again our research shows this to be a stupid assumption to make. Stupid because the statistics show the biggest growth of the use of new tools like social networking are actually in older generations and stupid again because we know in our own anecdotal experiences these technologies have made a big difference on how we live our lives every day. My favourite example can actually be found once a week on a Thursday evening during Question Time. If you were to open up Twitter and follow the Question Time hashtag you will witness a quiet revolution of normal everyday people getting engaged in democratic discussion about how our country is run and the current affairs that affect us all. Thanks to the wonders of the internet and social networks, that experience has been transformed from a one-way “transmission” (or as it was in my house, just me shouting at the telly) to a totally collaborative experience that engages the audience and the panel in a way only dreamed of previously.
The rise of social networking and it’s fundamental importance to the future of how a modern society can benefit from technology is a topic that is not yet well understood. We probably have ourselves to blame, but let me tell you now that social networking is not about providing an endless commentary of trivial anecdotes about my life as an individual, you know the ones I mean “just had the world’s best latte! LOL” or “overslept again, don’t tell the boss” but in many ways actually represents as big a revolution to our use of the internet as the web did when it first became mainstream. This may be a revelation to many of you, but the real value of social networking lies not just in the communications themselves, but also in the connections that are made in order for the communications to flow. With social networking, we are finally able to move from a network of machines, a cold, logical place governed by the ones and zeros of binary code to a network of people, where human intent and instinct combines with the power that the digital world has to offer.
Social networking offers us the potential to “humanise the web”, augmenting the power that the internet’s connection and collaboration provides with a human signal that provides citizens, organisations and governments with the ability to connect and effect change on a scale never before imaginable. This year the world has witnessed incredible scenes, some good, some bad of how citizens have grabbed the power that social networks have to offer in order to effect massive change in the way in which they are governed. This year we have seen how citizens can use Facebook to organise a revolution, Twitter to orchestrate it on the day and YouTube to tell the world. Detractors may point to the ugly scenes in London and across the UK from back in the summer but the truth is that social media played as big a part in the clean up as it did on the temporary disruption in our nation’s morality.
It is said, that “on the internet, no-one knows you’re a dog” – well the truth is, today on the internet, no-one knows you’re in Dolgellau – the internet is a geographic leveller, it offers incredible opportunities that transcend geographical location, enabling global companies to be borne out of local, rural locations, where the only real constraints are those of the entrepreneurs imagination and, oh yes, available bandwidth. This is both our opportunity and our curse, we have in our midst incredible rural communities rich in talent, expertise and experience, who throughout the UK, have long been the industrial heartbeat of our nation but increasingly are struggling to remain competitive or even operative in the midst of a global marketplace in recession. If we are able to correctly crack the problem of providing sufficient connectivity to these locations, there is almost nothing to stop the next global success stories coming from places like North Wales, Cumbria or deepest, darkest Dorset.
In the future I am convinced our descendants will look at our work practices with pity, failing to comprehend why we all felt compelled to travel long distances just so we could be in the same place, at the same time as our colleagues. In these days of predominantly service and knowledge industries this feels somewhat out of sync with the capabilities of technology. What if we used these technologies more and changed our work practices creating local hubs across communities throughout the country? Not only would this have a massive economic impact in terms of reclaiming lost time, it also would have significant positive upside on both the environment and more importantly the local economies of these areas enabling small and medium businesses to flourish in support of the local workforce.
Throughout the history of our civilisation it is has often been remarked that we have sufficient technology to achieve our goals and this is actually one of the most dangerous views we face. If we had heeded that advice would we have harnessed fire, the industrial revolution, electricity, the car? Possibly not. History provides us with great examples of where this “arrogance of the present” clouds our judgement “the world will only ever need 3 or 4 computers” or even our own Bill Gates claiming “no-one will need more than 640Kb of RAM” but the truth is, it is incredibly difficult to judge the future value of any given innovation when it can only be judged by a current mindset, the current norm so to speak.
The internet and social networks offer a modern society opportunities and advances far beyond the reach of simple social connections and communication, used properly, they truly offer the potential for the combination of man and machine to become greater than the sum of their parts.
But, this development will require some effective stewardship and will present our society with complex issues that we must all face and work our way through and with that, in closing, I am reminded of that famous quote from the cultural classic that is “Spiderman, the movie” – “with great power comes great responsibility” – the internet, social networks and other associated technologies offer our society incredible opportunity and advantages and both we as technology providers and you as policy makers and legislators have a duty of care to ensure that we can live up to the opportunity – the question really is – are we up to that challenge?