The UK Government made a significant announcement last week as it unveiled plans to seriously review and examine everything digital and its relation to business and culture.
As far as I’m concerned, the announcement, by Lord Carter, Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting, is is a vitally important topic and while it gained some coverage in the UK blogosphere (notably posts by Wadds, Stephen Davies and Dominic Campbell), I think it deserves a lot more debate.
The reason it deserves more debate is that while the Government is appearing to take seriously the opportunities – economic and cultural – offered by digital convergence the language it is using to drive forward a review of these opportunities is worrying.
One phrase in particular I find intriguing:
“We [the Government] will seek to bring forward a unified framework to help maximize the UK’s competitive advantage and the benefits to society.”
Now, while no one will argue that maximizing the benefits the Internet brings to UK society is not desirable, and while some would argue that maximizing the UK’s competitive advantage is not a necessary priority it cannot be denied that the Internet is throwing up enormous economic benefits.
But what concern me here is the term “unified framework“. This brings to mind the idea of an extremely top-down, bureaucratic regime of Internet governance for certain industries or social/cultural groups that the Government decides is a priority or that would benefit specifically from support.
Of course, I’m prejudging what the government has in mind. However, I am prejudging to illustrate a point. namely, that as any fule kno – the beauty and power of the Internet is that it is a decentralised network where the power of creativity or production is in the hands of the individual user.
As a result, production and methods of production are as unique and *non-unified* as there are individuals involved.
It is perhaps worrying that the Government’s announcement seems to indicate a failure to grasp this idea.
Related to this point of decentralised production by end-users is the notion of what actually gets created (and “digital content development” is one of the key Government areas for review).
The announcement observes that digital convergence is “critical to every business in our economy, acting both as a catalyst for creativity and allowing efficiency gains.”
But if we look specifically at ‘social or peer production’ – the user-generated content I suspect the Government is alluding to (especially with reference to “efficiency gains” – then again it is acutely important that the *user-generated* element of this creative content and production is just that: created by the user.
This is significant because it means the Government can’t just pick a key industry and say “Right. This is the sector in which we need efficiency gains and more creative content.” This, of course, is for the individual with a PC in their study or bedroom to decide.
But don’t get me wrong, we are experiencing a major transition in the way economic models, businesses, creativity and social relations behave. And the Internet is at the heart of this transition – both driving it and being driven. The fact that the UK government has woken up to it is extremely heartening. key issues are under review, such as:
- “Broadband Development - examining options for maximizing participation and levels of service across the UK
- Spectrum: identifying the barriers to the release of spectrum and a fully functioning market in the trading and use of spectrum
- Universal access to high quality, public service content through appropriate mechanisms for a converged digital age
- Intellectual property: the UK Intellectual Property Office will take forward work to deliver a digital copyright framework which supports creativity, investment and job creation in these important sectors”
My concern comes from experience of the way government and organisations function which is usually highly top-down and hierarchical. Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham, who is sharing ministerial responsibility for the Carter Review, says as much in the press release:
“Over the last year we’ve worked with experts to get a clear understanding of the issues to address and obstacles to overcome if our businesses and citizens are to take full advantage of technology.” [My emphasis]
IMHO speaking to self-appointed ‘experts’ about how other people (“citizens”) should make use of technology is the old way of doing things. And in my view approaching the opportunities of the Internet in this way will achieve the exact opposite of what the Government intends to achieve.
Former Yale academic, recently appointed Professor of Entrepreneurial Law at Harvard University, Yochai Benkler, has written extensively about emergent economic models in a digital age.
As suggested above these models rely on social and/or non-market forces to achieve the “efficiency gains” flagged by the UK government. In his Wealth of Networks, Benkler observes that in this emerging economic and institutional ecology:
“the State plays no role or is perceived as playing a primarily negative role … Just like the market, the state will have to adjust to this new emerging modality of human action.”
Benkler suggests we are on the cusp of a new era for economics and creative opportunity as the UK government seems to acknowledge in its planned Digital Britain Report. However, Benkler is explicit that these new opportunities for the economy as well as democracy and human freedom are contingent on the key players (governments; regulators; gate-keeping corporations etc) getting it right from the outset.
The UK Government’s announcement doesn’t fill me with optimism that this is likely to happen.