Is innovation fair? Has the internet revolution resulted in more social justice and equality for everyone in society?
Not according to Helen Milner, the managing director of UK Online Centres, an organisation that works with both the public and private sectors to bring technology to everyone in the UK. Last Tuesday evening, I had the great privilege to attend an invitation-only Channel 4-sponsored debate entitled "Recasting The Net" chaired by Charlie Beckett of the London School of Economics's Polis institute, which featured Milner, Channel 4 open-source idealist Tom Loosemore and the surprisingly wired editor of the ancient Spectator magazine, Matthew d'Ancona.
The real subject of last week's debate was social justice on the internet and it was Milner who, for better or worse, stole the Channel 4 show. She spoke passionately on behalf of the 25 per cent of people who, she claimed, have no access to the internet. This unwired class, she suggested, was the new lumpen proletariat cast adrift in an online-centric world of cheap and convenient internet services and goods.
Milner is certainly right in some ways. The old digital divide is now a chasm. The 25 per cent of people who have no access to the internet are profoundly unequal to the rest of us, who have the good fortune or wisdom to know our way around the internet. As Web 2.0 morphs into the raging real-time stream of services like Twitter, those poor souls who don't even know how to send emails are, like their mid-19th century handworker ancestors, doomed to analogue oblivion. Luddism is for losers. Aside from the super-rich who can afford their own internet butlers, technological ignorance is the symbol of failure, the red cross of shame, in our Darwinian digital "democracy".
But what should be done? The unfortunate truth is that innovation isn't fair. Nor is the internet, especially today's real-time web. Rather than creating more equality, it has actually generated vast power for a tiny new elite of attention-economy aristocrats like Silicon Valley media baron Tim O'Reilly, who has more than 500,000 Twitter followers. For all the promises of democratisation, real-time landed gentry like O'Reilly and increasingly monopolistic technology companies like Google and Amazon might actually be reinventing the radically unequal hierarchies of mid-19th century capitalism in the new digital age.
The problem with Milner's argument is that she has a 20th-century welfare-state style solution to a 21st-century problem. At the debate last week, she suggested that we all somehow have a moral duty to help the unwired 25 pre cent. My view is rather different. Computers today often cost less than televisions and broadband access is about the same price as cable. Many mobile phones are mini computers. Many libraries, schools, cafés, community centres and even churches have online computers. The digital future is yours. But only the networked will survive.Reuse content