Wired up to some big questions

Labour's technology deal with BT could have unintended and unforeseeabl e consequences

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Before you allow yourself to become too overwhelmed by the news that if Labour gets in, BT will connect every school and library to the information superhighway for free, ponder three facts. Number one is that Britain is already world leader in one aspect of computer software: somewhere between 30 and 40 per cent of the software of the world's computer games is written here. Number two is that some of the mobile phone companies already offer, "subject to status" of course, free connection to their superhighway. And number three is that in 1939, when the first television sets went on sale in America (the BBC had been broadcasting for years), the New York Times opined that it would never be a serious competitor to radio because "people must sit and keep their eyes glued to the screen; the average American family hasn't time for it".

The point about the first fact is that being computer literate is as much thinking of new games which enable more kids to kill more people on screen in more exciting ways as it is producing a new CD-Rom encyclopaedia on the collapse of Roman civilisation.

The point about the second fact is that every sensible consumer business wants to get children into the habit of buying its products. BT's plan is much more akin to the sales gimmicks of the mobile phone people, or for that matter the way in which the soft-drink vending companies get their machines into schools, than it is an altruistic effort to educate the nation. Far from it: the quid pro quo, that BT can sell services such as movies over its network, will allow it to continue making money in a world where phone calls themselves become virtually free.

And the point about TV in America? It is that history is littered with examples of people being either wildly pessimistic or absurdly optimistic about the take-up of a new technology.

In that particular example (taken from Bill Bryson's wonderful book on the development of American English, Made in America), the product was much more successful than the writer expected. But one has only to recall the Eagle children's comic of the Fifties to see the opposite effect. We did get to the moon pretty much on schedule, but space exploration has subsequently ground to a halt. And we still do not all have personal helicopters, jet-packs, or even those natty video phones on which Dan Dare and Digby used to hold their gung-ho conversations. The technology does exist for people to have personal helicopters - and a few company chairmen do; there are jet-packs - they have provided a spectacular finale for Michael Jackson's concerts; and video phones may at last be coming into their own; but none of these innovations is yet a commercial success.

So the fact that something is technically possible does not necessarily mean it will become a commonplace feature of day-to-day life.

And so it is with the information superhighway. I happen to believe that our lives will be as radically changed by communications technology over the next 30 years as the lives of people were changed by the car between, say, 1950 and 1980. But just as no one foresaw in 1950 the impact the car would have on shopping patterns - the weekly shop at the supermarket instead of the daily trek to greengrocer, butcher and baker - so it is very hard to see the full social consequences of the coming advances in telecommunications.

It is a safe assumption that fixed-link phone calls anywhere in the world will become so cheap that there may not be any point in charging individually for them. We will pay a modest monthly fee to cover all calls anywhere in the world.

We can also assume that the high-capacity links will carry anything we want them to carry: colour faxes and video phone links (at last); a movie or a CD-Rom; the latest TV news at the time we choose to see it; junk mail, if that is what we want. I expect, too, that there will be electronic translation services, so that if we wish to talk to a Japanese-speaking friend we will flick the set on to translation and have some sort of conversation.

And maybe on the same system, maybe on a different one, we will have a mobile communications network that works, if we want it, anywhere in the world. We will probably have a single number or telecommunications name for life. Never again need we forget a phone number.

But there is a world of difference between what technologies can do and what we want them to do, or rather what we are prepared to pay for them to do. We will self-evidently pay an enormous amount for mobility. Mobile phones have been described, like second marriages, as a triumph of hope over experience, but their take-up is still growing at an astonishing rate. We will pay a lot for entertainment, judging by the experience of pay-TV shows for adults and the video games industry for children.

What is much less clear is whether there is really an enormous market for the goodies that enthusiasts for the superhighway claim. We may want 2,000 TV channels, but we may not. We may want to be able to video shop, but not if it costs a 20 per cent mark-up. We may want to e-mail all Rabbit's relations, but we may not want to read the replies.

It is almost politically incorrect to say so but it is quite possible that the Internet may prove a passing fad, nice for nerds, and useful for information, like the share price page of a daily paper, but useless for the rest of us.

As for interactive TV, were it possible to deliver a really interactive service, like phone-in radio, the attractions would be enormous. But pretend interactive TV, where you talk to a pre-programmed computer, risks merely teasing instead of satisfying.

So giving every child in the land access to a computer and linking it to a broad-band communications network may simply mean that our children spend more time playing games rather than learning about environmental economics or classical civilisation. If that subsequently means we push our share of the world video games software market up to 60 per cent, then that is a bonus. Indeed, teaching people that trade in services is just as good a way of earning our living as metal-bashing is admirable. But it may not be what Mr Blair and his colleagues have in mind.

Nor do they fully appreciate what a world of high-capacity, virtually free communications could mean for their own trade. A world where skilled people can live anywhere and deliver their services on screen is one where national politicians are less and less powerful. If they do not perform to best international standards, the good people, plus their PCs, will walk.

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