A response to the Digital Britain Interim Report, 2009

Digital Britain: the interim report January 2009

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In January 2009 the UK Department for Culture Media and Sport published the Digital Britain: The Interim Report, lead by former Ofcom chief executive Stephen Carter, which is a ‘plan to secure Britain’s place at the forefront of the global digital economy’. The interim report contains more than 20 recommendations on: next-generation networks, universal access to broadband, the creation of a second public service provider of scale, the modernisation of wireless radio spectrum holdings, a digital future for radio, a new deal for digital content rights, and enhancing the digital delivery of public services. The consultation period, facilitated by the Digital Britain discussion site, finished this week. The ‘Write to Reply’ service also provides a way to comment on the Report paragraph by paragraph [dead]. From my experience, a number of areas in the draft report need to be addressed:

  1. More vision and imagination needed: Digital/network technologies are assumed to be generally beneficial, which they can be, but there is no sense from the report that the profound characteristics of these tools are understood or that there is a vision (however flawed) of what a network society might be. (Though we should be wary of terms such as ‘network society’ and ‘digital Britain’: to talk today about ‘electric Britain’ shows how quaint and wrong-headed are such conceits.) Electricity is mentioned as a parallel social-technology, but the imagination of the digital future presented in the report is stuck where thinking about electricity was in 1900.
  2. There is no sense that we need to find new ways to discover needs and desires, and prototype them: The general view of the report is that ‘if you build it they will come’. Perhaps. But we have built many things people didn’t come to, include many networks. Our objective should be to better anticipate what people might want, even if the needs or desires are latent or unexpressed. This would be ambitious. And we should encourage experimentation and prototyping to facilitate creating better outcomes.
  3. The technology, economic, social and business cases are set out to some extent, but not the people case. How are we going to facilitate the creation of products and services people might want? There is only one reference in the report to ease-of-use (in the context of developing user-friendly mass-market services) and none of design. If we want to avoid the kinds of failures we have seen in big government IT projects we need to understand audiences better, and create better things for them.
  4. The report proposes a 2Mb/s ‘universal service commitment’. This is both too little and too much. Too little for obvious reasons related to high definition broadcasting, video conferencing, and the like. But too much in the sense that it fetishes bandwidth for its own sake. In the early noughties when BT was being attacked for low broadband speeds compared to other countries I asked “How much bandwidth do those hot communication technologies SMS and IM need? Almost none” (Boring broadbandwidth baloney, 2004, and see also my piece Thinktanks fill up on broadband published in Silicon.com in 2004). Since then we have seen huge uptake of social networking tools, which typically use tiny amounts of bandwidth, for instance for a status update or Tweet. The ‘high bandwidth element is all embedded in past experience in the relationship between the parties communicating. In this sense, the Report shows a lack of imagination.
  5. There is no imagination about new forms of content that are of the medium: whatever one thinks of it, [the reality TV show] Big Brother is of the medium, at least of telephony/SMS/broadcast. But pushing half-hour sitcoms down fat pipes is not the future. At best it is a transitional activity. We need some serious imagination and innovation in this area.
  6. Bad government services offline are bad government services online: Just putting something online doesn’t make it any better, and the digital lustre soon fades. Digital networks aren’t a panacea for bad government policy, and can’t repair the damage that has been done to the relationship between citizen and state. In fact, trying to solve this problem with the wrong tools will tend to undermine their value in people’s eyes, even when they are used correctly.

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Published by Nico Macdonald

Communication, facilitation and consultancy around design and technology

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2 Comments

  1. All good points. In addition…
    Media literacy: In the draft report, this is conceived as the skills required to access, to be a successful consumer, with points mixed in about child protection. But I think literacy more broadly means learning how to be sceptical, how to triangulate opinions, and of course also how to contribute. (Classical literacy is about being able to write as well as read!)
    Carbon footprint: I see no reference at all to the fact that Digital Britain will lead to greater use of energy by electronic devices and a greater burden on the environment unless some clever thinking is built in, and soon. Business as usual is not an option.
    Citizen protection: It is assumed that digital citizens need protection from online criminality. We may find that we face greater intrustion from business and the State. What levels of protection from snooping and data exploitation can the citizens of Digital Britain expect?
    ‘British content’: I hope this is not construed xenophobically. Britain has historic links with Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, and quite a lot of British residents were born abroad or have family links abroad, so I hope content will link us to the rest of the world culturally.

  2. Conrad: I agree on your wider definition of media literacy (which is a dubious concept in its narrow sense). On the ‘carbon footprint’ point, my view is we need innovation in energy generation, distribution and use, rather than individual conservation or limiting progress in other areas. I am more worried about intrusion from the state than business, and there is an interesting debate taking place about the role social networks are playing in the breakdown of the public-private divide. As to the content discussion, if one could prefix it with a ‘schm’ I would.

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