A brief keynote to Westminster Digital Forum

My name is Andrew Orlowski from The Register, I was looking for an illustration to try and bring a very old debate to have a fresh perspective, and I came across this in my library, which is an extraordinary book written by a gentleman called Yoneji Masuda. The book was written in 1980 and it was the Japanese plan to computerise Japanese Society on Cybernetic lines.  It was a very modest project. It would have cost about $65 billion in the currency at the time, and plans included robotically controlled personal transporters, he forecast the death of the television by about 1985; an “information sharing” society would follow, democracy would be reborn.  Much of this utopian rhetoric is stuff we have heard since then, but we are in a very interesting time, I think, for digital networks and for society. 
We are faced with a paradox, very briefly, I will try and encapsulate it in about a minute.

The paradox is that we have technical inertia evident in the adoption of highly advanced, intelligent high speed networks, the kind of technology that the next speaker’s employer [Lord Carter] will gladly show you. Certainly long term improvements such as IPv6 have been very slow coming to digital networks, too.  At the same time we have a very stubborn percentage of the British population, I believe it’s around 17 million households who refuse to go online. 

Now earlier this year there was a very captivating book by Jaron Lanier entitled ‘You are not a Gadget’ who pointed out that when technologists tend to blame people for their tools failing to meet our needs and desires. Technology utopians present a rather desiccated view of human individuality, we make choices for rational reasons, but if these don’t fit the plan, the master plan, we are either ignorant or perhaps stupid. Last year Martha Lane Fox suggested that more coercion might be needed to get more people online.  Perhaps there are better ways of approaching this. 

Today we are faced with a rather fading utopianism that was evident in Japan in 1980, and which has been there from the birth of the internet, and today it’s manifest in a couple of deep kind of intellectual prejudices. One is that it’s rather grubby to make money from selling bits – which is what ISPs do, and secondly, it’s rather grubby to place a value on those bits that flow over the network – which is what copyright businesses tend to do.  So we are at a stage now where online content markets are immature or non-existent and ISPs face some very difficult questions, in some ways they’re are on a hiding to nothing.