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Science, Maths & Technology

The information economy

Updated Wednesday, 6th August 2008

The Open Minds programme explores the information economy.

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Meet the participants

John Monk

John Monk is Professor of Electronics at the Open University with an interest in the philosophy, sociology, aesthetics and ethics of technology. He is a Chartered Engineer and has worked in a number of European telecommunications and engineering companies.

Paul Taylor

Paul Taylor is the IT Correspondent for the Financial Times. His twenty years on the paper began after working on various local papers in London and the South East. Before becoming IT correspondent he reported largely on foreign issues, which involved postings to New York and Bangkok, and spent three years covering stories on UK IT companies.

John Higgins

John Higgins is the Director General of the Computing Services Software Association.

About the discussion

We store it, we mine it, we harvest it. Not a natural resource, but information – the key to the digital revolution.

Will the growing trade in information create a social divide between those who are informed and those who are not?

John Monk says that there is a danger that a divide will develop in society between those who use the Internet for buying and selling and financial services and those who don’t. People who don’t have or can’t afford access will be disadvantaged, and with this in mind we should take measures to ensure the technology is more inclusive.

Paul Taylor suggests that the information underclass should be angry about this state of affairs – access to information should be a right and should be seen as such even more strongly in the future. It is very important that the Internet is supplied through universities, colleges, cafés, shopping centres and other public places. Digital television and its successors will hopefully help to close the gap and make access less dependent on personal computers.

John Higgins says that people shouldn’t get angry – they should get even. We often underestimate people’s ability to get hold of information. The government need to take strong measures to make new products accessible and user-friendly – if they don’t, people won’t use them, industry will step in and provide products that people want at prices they are willing to pay.

There is an increasing amount of information being gathered from us without our knowledge – store cards and Internet sites for example. Should we be concerned?

Paul Taylor believes that concern over our increasing lack of privacy is very valid and will shortly become a hot issue. For example, most people don’t realise that in the City of London you’re on a camera 95 per cent of the time. What we used to consider our personal lives is no longer personal.

John Monk suggests that it is a difficult balancing act - we install technology to bring benefits but we sometimes get over enthusiastic because of these benefits and gloss over the problems. We need to be more critical of the technology and take responsibility for being better informed as individuals.

Many new technologies monitor what we use and give us more of it. Does this narrow our horizons and our ability to discover new things?

John Monk argues that people often try to divorce politics from technology but communications of all sorts are used for control. It is important to look at technology more critically because of the political content.

How robust are the industries based on rapidly changing new technologies?

John Higgins suggests that the whole industry is not robust, but it is very adaptable. It can change with the times, listen to consumers and adapt quickly. In fact, the very nature of the technology allows us to do this – there are no large investments in machinery, bricks and mortar. However, companies rise and fall very easily – small mistakes can have big repercussions.

Paul Taylor suggests that the industry is still in its teenage years. It is by nature moving fast and changing all the time, but this is a positive attribute and we should not be surprised. One danger is that the industry still talks about the boxes and the machinery as being the most important thing – it hasn’t yet learned that people are more interested in what the machinery can do, what problems it can solve.

John Higgins says that it’s always been the case that all industries focus on what they know. It’s natural that many people in the industry still focus on what they’re delivering.

Control of these new technologies seems to be concentrated in the hands of a few powerful individuals. How can we take power back?

John Higgins suggests that access to the media has been in the hands of a small group of distributors. We now have a situation where a huge variety of people are distributing services to anyone who chooses to make that information available to them. There is still wealth in the hands of a few providers of the technology, but the technology is available to everyone.

Paul Taylor agrees - information gives people power. The Internet, for example, makes it much easier to access information about goods and services. There is a definite move to disintermediation – taking out the middle man. However, there should be some kind of contract between the supplier of personal details and the consumer of these details, which we very often don’t have at the moment.

John Monk says that there has always been the danger that authoritarian regimes, for example, sustain their power through communications systems and there is the opportunity for individuals to gain huge amounts of power. However, it is not those distributing the information, but those censoring and managing it that we need to be wary of.

John Higgins disagrees. He argues that originally the broadcast media were being controlled so there was the opportunity for authoritarian states to manage the information. Now we don’t have those controls so any group can set up a web site and it can’t be censored. This does bring more opportunities, but there are dangers in the all-powerful consumer. Great changes in consumer trends can completely destroy industries almost over night.

John Monk counters that the anarchy of the Internet is largely to do with it being a teenage industry – it has yet to develop a political maturity. All sorts of technologies have been exploited for political purposes and the Internet will be no different.

Until recently up to 90 per cent of technology research was carried out by the military, now the bulk is funded by private business. Is this any more benign?

John Monk suggests that, while this culture may seem more altruistic, they have their own interests at heart. It is important to have suitable political systems in place if we are concerned about the degree of control we have over new developments.

John Higgins, however, believes that there is a difference – the paymasters of the military are the political controllers while the paymasters of business are you and me. If they don’t deliver what we want we will buy someone else’s product.

Should we expect to see an increase in cyber terrorism, such as the use of computer viruses to completely stymie a whole country?

John Higgins says that the governments of the USA and the UK are extremely concerned about the vulnerability of our underlying infrastructures. Their biggest challenge, after the Millennium Bug, is protecting this critical infrastructure. It will be in the news before long.

John Monk points out that it has already been in the news. There have been worldwide cases of individuals attacked organisations with the ‘ping of death’ – flooding their systems so that no other communications can get through.

Paul Taylor agrees. He says it is a classic iceberg – we only hear about a fraction of the attacks. It doesn’t only concern military targets and industrial espionage, it is a huge and growing problem. It is a fine balance between those determined to profit and those charged with blocking their attempts – the task is to remain one step ahead of the bad guys.

Are we only four meals away from anarchy?

All three guests agree that this is an alarmist statement, but it may well be right.

John Monk offers hope in that because we’re alarmed we are prompted to take counter measures, but that may not be enough.

Take if further

The Digital Economy, Don Tapscott (McGraw Hill, London)

Digital Delirium, Arthur and Marilouise Kroker (eds) (New World Perspectives, Montreal)

If you’d like to explore the natural world as well as the one we have built, why not investigate Open University biology courses?





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