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
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.
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.