It’s election day here in the UK and I will be spending the evening watching the coverage with two of London’s great ladies, Jemima Gibbons, author of Monkeys with Typewriters, and Mecca Ibrahim (aka Annie Mole) the author of One Stop Short of Barking. It promises to be a very entertaining evening, regardless of the result. But on such a day, it’s not unusual to think about the future, and the opportunities – and limitations – before us.
There can be little doubt that I am an optimist about technologies, and all they can facilitate for business as well as for democratic participation and self-improvement. But I am also a realist about the limitations of the same technologies and the plans to generate profit from their deployment.
I have read the manifestos standing parties here in the UK (Labour, Conservative and Lib Dems, at least, and read the websites of a few other parties) and I am decidedly unimpressed with the oversimplification of issues pertaining to connectivity. I’ve also been keeping an eye on the Australian Government’s response to the Government 2.0 Taskforce who were charged with framing policies for the future of Australia’s connectivity and participation. And that too, is decidedly lacking in a long term plan for connectivity infrastructure and management of technology access.
The problem with both countries and all political players is that they seem insensible of the costs associated with providing access, and that they are agreeing in principle to ideas of participation without having the financial credibility to sustain the investment needed to achieve their aims.
National debts across Europe are crippling economies as we speak, and no amount of austere living and curtailment of tax credits will prevent severe if not lasting financial hardship. (The bond market doesn’t behave the way most people think; junk credit caused by bad debts needs to be rectified by refinancing, not through mere cost cutting alone, as the latter tends to stifle productivity as well as reduce investment prospects.) But what can facilitate interest and investment in a region, and fast recovery from financial hardship is a robust technology sector, and a connected populace.
This isn’t a technologically determinist perspective; it’s mere utility. If the infrastructure is in place, and the network is well-maintained, then there is an opportunity for businesses to spring up, as well as market their wares, and investment in prospects is facilitated.
This does NOT mean you need fibre to the home, a duplicated network, or even a minimum broadband download speed. Indeed with recent developments in adaptation of copper pair networks, it’s a matter of choosing the most economically efficient infrastructure to ensure reliability of connection and can be made affordable for residents, not what material is used in a network roll-out. It means that the most efficient technologies need to be deployed in a single, well-maintained network and that these need to be affordable for all people.
It’s no accident that the most technologically wired nations of Europe are also the most wealthy. Public investment has also helped, but developing a single, well-maintained network which facilitates businesses to deliver value-added services to global markets, is probably the single most important means of minimising debt and maximising opportunities for countries in a network society.
But none of the parties in the UK seem prepared to support such a policy. Australia, be warned. Happy Election Night.