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We must design a moral compass for the digital age


© GDSTeam 2016 - Martha Lane-Fox visiting GDS

Concerned for our physical, digital and emotional security Martha Lane-Fox calls on government to “create a network of public organisations that can more tangibly build our nation’s digital understanding,”

A few days ago Martha Lane-Fox gave a speech in the House of Lords setting out her thoughts on the opportunities and threats presented by the rapidly developing digital landscape.

In her speech Lane-Fox called for “improved digital understanding” in UK. She believes that improving our understanding of where we are and where we may be going in the digital age “is central to our ability to create better outcomes for more people”.

Lane-Fox pays tribute to the achievements of the Government Digital Service (GDS) in her speech and points out that last year UK was ranked top for digital government by the United Nations. But she warns that the “good work being done to help the government modernise … being dismantled. Departmental silos are creeping back, replicating cost and inefficiency and, most importantly, letting down citizens”.

These parochial concerns, however important - and they are very important - are a relatively small part of a wide ranging, deeply felt, persuasive and occasionally depressing, tour of the global digital landscape provided by the founder of LastMinute.Com and David Cameron’s former ‘digital champion’.

Lane-Fox started her speech by reminding her audience that the last time she had spoken in the house on such matters had been in February 2014 when she had led a debate celebrating the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web.

In that speech, she recalled, she had warned that “we are sleepwalking into assuming that the platform underpinning so much of our daily life is not changing”. 

Three years on and she is “sad to report” that neither she nor her audience took much notice of what she was saying. “…. nearly all of us, including me, have spent too much of the past three years continuing to sleepwalk. And if that last debate was a birthday party, today’s must be a midlife crisis.”

Among a raft of geopolitical shifts, like global warming and widespread unemployment among young people says Lane-Fox, we are also living through a “staggering transformation of the internet….” 

“This is a challenge,” but … it is also a source of tremendous opportunity. “If we seize them, if we own them, we can harness the power of these technologies to address the other great challenges we face.”  

“The internet promised us energised democracies and a world where we could all speak to one another. And it has fulfilled that promise,” Lane-Fox points out, “today we can register to vote, petition the government and support candidates who match our values with just a few keystrokes.”

But there is a downside to all this and she also points to the results of a number of recent political polls that have suffered from at best questionable and at worst criminal manipulation by unscrupulous online campaigners.

The same internet that offers us freedom and connectivity brings “emotionally manipulative advertisements that target us based on our gender, our faith, and even our sexual preferences.”

The same internet that promised us flexible, creative working has also brought us Amazon delivery drivers receiving as little as £3 an hour without time for breaks, while the Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world with personal wealth of more than $92 billion.

The same internet that allows every single piece of art at the Tate to have its own webpage brings us slickly produced fake news and platforms like Instagram with “its damaging effects on young people’s self esteem.”

We have nobody to blame but ourselves says Lane-Fox.

“We can point to (the) tech giants, the monopoly platforms, the wily political strategists who have shaped these phenomena and try to blame them for all this. But the truth is, they only created the hollow vessels. We are the users.”

“Expertise has been devalued, and emotion reigns supreme”. The internet has helped drive the exponential increase in our access to information, but at the same time YouTube videos with titles like “What They Haven’t Told You About Climate Change” and “The Great Climate Change Hoax” have driven millions of views.

Nearly all UK internet users have the digital skills to use a search engine, but only half know how to distinguish between search results and adverts. Around two-thirds of our digitally skilled population can shop and bank online but half of those don’t make any checks before entering their personal and financial information online. More than 1.4 million of us work in tech-related jobs but, as the recent WannaCry attack showed us, hardly anyone is investing the time, resources or expertise to keep our digital systems safe.

“If we want to change this dynamic and shape the future”, says Lane-Fox, “we need to understand – at all levels of society – what our digital world really is. We need to address the challenges that already exist and preempt the ones we don’t yet know about. 

But “becoming a nation of people with digital understanding will be ….more complicated than becoming a nation of people with digital skills”.

“Digital skills are tangible and teachable” something we do. But “in a world where we spend more time online than we do asleep and where everything from our television to our kettle can connect to the internet, digital is something we are”.

Martha Lane-Fox believes that “it is coordination and focus which will embed digital understanding in the fabric of our lives”, and calls on government to “create a network of public organisations that can more tangibly build our nation’s digital understanding,” to take up the opportunity to argue about and articulate what we want, individually and as a nation, “to design (a) moral compass for our digital age”. 

Difficult or not, says Lane-Fox, this work must be done and it must be done now.

“We don’t need a Select Committee on Digital Understanding beavering away in a closed-off room – we need smart people working in creative and agile ways to get to the root of what’s really going on. This is the work of adventurous minds who are showing what real digital understanding can mean in practice and how we can use this understanding to shape our society for the public good”. 

Marth Lane-Fox - text of speech can be read here

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