Web

Time for a New Web

Taking Stock of progress

This year’s Dimbleby lecture by Sir Tim Berners-Lee was extremely thought-provoking. He spoke with calm, erudite passion about the need for a mid-course correction to the current direction of travel of the internet. The technical insights were fascinating, as would be expected from the man credited with one of the most extraordinary inventions of modern times. That aside, there was a profound message (come warning) that is hard to ignore for anyone concerned with human decency and some of the more worrying societal trends of recent times.

Amongst the audience was Martha Lane-Fox. The lecture she gave in 2015 now seems eerily prescient of the 2019 message. The common denominator being, we need to pause and think very carefully about what we’re doing with this amazing tool we so often take for granted. Four years earlier, Martha Lanes-Fox’s lecture formed an exquisite expose of public servants’ duty to embrace digital tools to better meet the needs of citizens.

When Social Isolation is on the Rise, it’s Time for a New Web

The subtext then and now is a call to action for social equality in the digital age. Berners-Lee laid out a complementary discourse on why, when it comes to the web, we can and should expect better from each other, companies and government. For something with such potential to be a force for good, it can be perplexing to witness how it is being used to misinform, mislead and harm. Between 2015 and 2019 things have no doubt changed but perhaps not entirely for the better.

Without mentioning the “B” word, 2019 is also destined to remembered for the election. One of the main parties is championing the idea of free broadband for all households. It would seem the Labour’s policy geeks are either onto something very special or are undertaking an act of extraordinary cynicism in an effort to secure votes. Now that the promise has officially made it into the election manifesto, it has notched up the heat on a debate that would no doubt be close to the heart of the 2015 and 2019 Dimbley Lecturers. At a time when social isolation is on the rise and shows no sign of abating, there is something compelling about an idea that seeks to remove barriers to social inclusion.

It’s About People

The ensuing debate about whether the tens of billions it would cost to implement is a healthy one. It delicately weighs the plight of the digitally excluded against an argument for radical state intervention and at the same time presents a subtle 21st-century argument for the possible re-nationalisation of a vital service. Like so many entrenched social issues the causes of social isolation are complex. This is certainly true for one group in particular; the *4 million 65-year-olds in the UK (Age UK Report 2018) who have never used the internet.

What gives the idea an extra edge is that an extensive state infrastructure project to accelerate the development of broadband (and 5G) would almost certainly boost the economic muscle of a country seeking to find its place in the new industrial era. Britain trails other first-world economies by some distance when it comes to the availability of high-speed internet. This being so, why shouldn’t broadband be considered a crucial utility like water, gas and electricity?

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