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Martha Lane Fox: Our Digital Future - Tackling the digital divide

By Martha Lane Fox

January 4, 2013 | 7 min read

The web has made an enormous difference to my life; personally because I started, so on a professional level it was transformational. To society as a whole I think that it’s probably quite early to tell but for me the benefits of more education, more employment, more global connectedness and the extraordinary new businesses being created on every level in every sector. The web is making a profound change.

There are two things – two big things – that worry me about the internet. The first is the divide between people who are able to use it effectively and the people who are not. Just in the UK alone there are seven million who have never used the internet and 16 million people who don’t have basic digital skills. So, the absence of the internet is a worry.

My second big worry is about the privacy and personal data that is being collated. I don’t think at this minute it is being used in a suspicious or dangerous way but I don’t think people have an inkling of the amount of information that is being collected.

As for my hopes, I hope that, in the future, technology can make me personally a bit better because I had a very serious car crash eight years ago and I am partly metal and if I’d had the crash now I would have been much more robotic; I would be connected probably to the internet with microchips in all of the things they put in me: so I look forward to the time when I am more of a robot and more able to move more easily.

But on a macro, more serious level, I think that there is huge optimism about what technology can do and I believe that we will be able to start solving some of the biggest challenges that we face as a planet; whether that’s climate change, population size, or digital divide and inequality by putting technology at the heart of those debates.

We need to keep improving our networks and I think infrastructure is very, very important but it’s not the only piece of the puzzle. I’ve been working for the last two or three years building the case with government that we have got to increase skills across the board; not just with individuals but also with organisations, small businesses and charities where there is still a big gap in their ability to exploit technology effectively.

The government needs to put as much emphasis on skills and the demand side as it does on the supply side but it is doing some good stuff including a team in the cabinet office called the government digital service. They launched a dramatically different way of government itself using the internet. And that again is part of the battle; it’s not only government building stuff for us to use but also building stuff that represents itself better. So, I think there is still a lot to be done but it’s probably going in the right direction not the wrong direction.

I believe that for the UK to really take advantage of its digital future we have to absolutely continue to build world-class infrastructure but we also have to make sure that all of our organisations are digitally capable; whether that’s a small business being able to sell stuff on the web or buy products on the web or whether it is a charity delivering services on the web more effectively; there is still a lot to do.

There’s a huge amount that business can do to help build digital skills: my organisation Go On UK has brought eight organisations together to help build out-skills within their companies and the broader country can do the same, both training their own workforces, opening up their places so that people can come in and learn, or just making sure that messages about the benefits of the internet are going out in all the way that they communicate with people.

I think that peer-to-peer training is fundamental in helping people get over the skills gap. That can sometimes be businesses sending people out into the community but it works best when communities are teaching communities themselves: so people you know are training you. So I think business can encourage that but I think a kind of blanket-bomb broadcast from business to a deprived community is not necessarily the best way to reach the real heart of those communities.

I am with Tanya Byron when it comes to children’s safety on line. She did a great and very simple piece of work looking at how to educate children and she just used the same logic as you use in teaching a child to cross the road… that it is as important to be aware of what you’re doing to look carefully around you and to cross with your eyes open. The same is true when you are online, so I don’t think we need to complicate it. I think that for us now (you know I’m nearly 40) when I look at younger people they don’t have the same issues around what’s public and private and it will be interesting to see whether that is important or not in the future. I wish I knew the answer to that big question.

I think the responsibility for educating children is the same as it is outside the internet world which is with parents, schools and anybody else who has authority over children. It’s all of our responsibilities to make sure that they’re educated in an effective way but cognisant of the fact that technology is changing all the time and their world will be very different from the one that we’re inhabiting right now.

I think it is fantastic to get the country talking about the important issues around digitisation. For me the biggest result out of it would be if we manage to inspire and connect more people. There are still seven million people who have never used the internet: they tend to be lower income households and older people where I would argue there is a disproportionate benefit to using technology. So if this could spark excitement and interest in those communities it would be absolutely marvelous.

I am optimistic; I am an entrepreneur. I think you have to be inherently optimistic but I am also optimistic because I believe properly in human beings and the wonder of technology to me is that it allows more people to meet more other people on a bigger scale than ever before to sort out problems or challenges that they face and I don’t know if that is at the micro level individual-to-individual or state to state…or more globally but I’m optimistic that because people at the heart of this; more people doing more things together, is a good thing.


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