PS Consultants - ideas & solutions

Will someone please oppose something..?
July 1998

Too much agreement can be bad for the soul of a nation.

Just when you thought that there was no such thing as good old-fashioned politics left in this land, now that all politicians seem broadly in agreement (even those in Northern Ireland, for heavens' sakes), I feel it is my duty to remind us all that there are still regions of modern life where there is scope for something we seem to have lost the knack of recently: political debate. In case you didn't realise, it is the constitutional duty of HM's Loyal Opposition to oppose -and not agree, or sit around wearing baseball caps and whinge that the "other lot" have stolen all "our" good ideas. But you would be forgiven for not having noticed this in the past year or so.

Given that the traditional fodder of yah-boo politics seems to have been nailed by this outbreak of agreement all round, no one has yet quite worked out how to upgrade the political process from steam engines and shipyards to the Information Age. Mostly because so few members of the public or political fraternity actually understand the first thing about it, so the fact that you are reading this magazine makes you a member of an all-too-small minority that ought to be trying to form some opinions on the political consequences of what is going on here.

The US has been brought up with a bit of start by the DoJ effort to restrain Microsoft from running away with the entire enchilada before any politician had realised what was actually going on.

There are a number of technology-meets-society issues that crop up regularly, get discussed for a bit and then subside as the media's attention span for matters technical is notoriously brief. Controlling the filth on the Internet crops up regularly, politicians demand that "something be done about it", the technos point out that the genii is now so far out of the bottle that even the repressive regimes around the globe have given up, and accepted that "communication" in the broadest sense is now uncontrollable. And that includes everything from electronic communication to the vast cross-border transitions of people and goods that make effective customs' controls a fond memory.

The Swedes, Danes (and many other Europeans with the exception of the Brits) have shown that a liberal attitude towards sex breeds (sic) a rather more stable and grown up attitude towards the subject from an early age, the Dutch have shown that accepting the inevitable where drugs are concerned actually reduces the problem. So given that the Internet is presently relatively unfettered (not true actually, remember that all the same laws apply – and you are lot more accountable for your whereabouts in cyberspace than you might imagine) it would take a fool, madman or a politician to believe that it would be a good idea to clamp down on naughtiness with a set of prohibition laws that would have the criminal classes rubbing their hands in glee.

Governments have had no option but to understand and accept what is going on, even if the back-bench red necks continue to grunt and roar in what has become the political version of scenes from Jurassic Park. The meteor that reduced the last batch of dinosaurs to fossil status was less subtle than the information meteor that has struck the current lot, but the result is a similar total annihilation of the "old ways"; and it's understandable that those caught in the transition are unnerved and inclined to react in traditional reactionary ways.

The issue today is not one of censorship and prohibition – both of which have provided rich pickings and opportunities for criminals and politicians over the years – but attempting to educate the masses to look up from the gutter towards the stars, and take advantage of this cornucopia of technology, delivered at next to no cost to anyone that wants it. Making sense of this is the challenge facing the teaching profession, whose obsession with the political irrelevance of a bygone age doesn't yet seem to have been dragged along into the 21st century along with Tony Blair's revolution of much of the rest of what was once deemed to be traditional "left wing" thinking.

sCool Brittania
The first item on this new agenda is getting information technology into schools as fast as possible, and the biggest hurdle there is the fact that the kids now know more about than the teachers thanks to the pace of home computers in that past decade. As luck would have it, the UK's relatively slow introduction of PCs to education means that it is not burdened with a lot of slightly old kit (nor indeed a lot of any sort of kit), but that if the re-equipping process it go ahead now, the benefits of some startling new advances will be available at unexpectedly low cost.

Telecom bandwidth remains grotesquely overpriced in the UK and Europe when compared to the USA – which is a pity, because the notion of teleconferencing as part of the way of educational life for schools could make the few talented teachers with rare charisma that we do seem to have, go so much further. However, this opportunity has not gone unnoticed, and I feel sure that someone will be making the effort to raise awareness of that aspect of the IT opportunity if those carping on about porn on the internet, will shut up for a moment and let the real issues for debate begin to emerge.

Although we undoubtedly have enclaves of IT talent, it's the lack of basic IT skills across the board that means that most of the products of the educational system don't know enough about the basics to effectively get involved in the management of technology businesses either. We have thus far educated a nation of estate agents, fast food retailers and photocopier salesmen who know just enough to be dangerous and accept the largess of the major US IT businesses who have discovered to their amusement that the way to a UK computer dealership's heart is through a day driving go-karts, corporate bungee jumping or playing golf. Never mind the technology, feel the G force.

So it's still depressing news that so few of the companies involved in IT and communications "revolutions" have any UK roots, when back in the sixties, the UK armaments industries lead the world in bellicose technology. Maybe in the global economy this doesn't matter, but it would be nice to think that the Brits controlled some of the agenda in IT, and that it wasn't entirely down to the US – but the overpricing of UK telecoms is certainly a major factor in the stunting of the markets in this part of the world. We will have to learn to be happy as the land of the Spice Girls and our role as a medieval theme park for a while longer while we work out how to take advantage of the fact that English is the language of information, despite what others would wish to happen.

Just as Bill Gates' charges a (minimum) $50 "gates' Tax" on all new PCs, I think the Queen should be entitled to levy a $50 charge on Mr Gates for use of the English Language. After all, show me licence that the US obtained for the use of the English Language from the UK when they so rudely and unceremoniously threw her antecedents out, back in 1776. The back royalties should clear the national debt quite nicely.

Wrapped up into all these issues where technology and politics interact is the question of the mobility of money in a cyber age. That money can now be moved anywhere by the rich and powerful seems to have been quietly accepted, and governments the world over are moving to indirect taxation. The 3 tax on a gallon of juice for the Roller is a darn sight easier to collect than income tax from some smart manipulator of offshore funds. And the weekly tax on the gullible in the form of the National Lottery (yes, I'm gullible as the other 92% who are now alleged to have "had a flutter") is a very nice little tax earner now that the government has sneakily diverted some of the funds to so-called "capital projects".

And if we apply the same "inevitability" criteria throughout society, generally speaking, I'd rather tax it than ban it. I would be delighted to think that my local roads were being surfaced, and politicians' wages were being funded by smokers, drinkers, drug takers, despoilers of the environment, gamblers and pornography aficionados than the honest labours of honest workpeople who have hitherto been the easiest victims of taxation through the inevitability of the PAYE system.

Wouldn't you..?