I recently upgraded from acetate overheads and marker pens in my lectures to the wonders of Powerpoint presentations. Feeling smug whipping out my laptop and beaming the slides through the digital projector, I was greeted by knowing smiles from my young audience as they retrieved their iPads from their bags. ‘Always behind the curve’ I thought, so this time I resolved to lead the charge, and ordered the iPad 2.0 in advance of its UK launch date of 25th March.
Looking at the slim iPad it’s easy to see what science fiction writer William Gibson meant when he said that the future is already here. Admittedly, much of the stuff envisaged two or three decades ago is now in place and seems terribly mundane. We don’t whizz off to faraway galaxies like Captain Kirk in the Enterprise, but then travelling faster than light was always a bit of a fantasy. And, as Woody Allen reminded us, terribly inconvenient as one’s hat keeps blowing off.
But the smooth integration of personal communications and information processing is happening, and it is proving to be much more powerful than virtually anyone conceived. Of course, when you see a teenager swapping texts on a phone, or posting to social networking sites from her android, it’s much less impressive than seeing Charlton Heston talking into a wrist radio in 1968. But, if we focus on the substance, the power of information processing (which, basically, is what creates distinctively human civilisation) has increased by orders of magnitude in the last half-century. The iPad is arguably another leap forward in this rapid transformation, bringing a new generation of inputs and outputs; changing how we work and live.
The future might already be here, but Gibson continues: ‘… it’s just not evenly distributed yet.’ This has ramifications beyond its intended humour. If we take it seriously, then it raises issues of fairness or justice. The new information and communications technologies are different to many other technologies. They create a new space in which, and about which, political questions can and should be raised. Lack of access to these technologies is a matter for worry in any society that claims fairness or justice as a value, or which looks for economic prosperity in austere times. Some are in danger of getting left behind, if they aren’t already.
First, we should not go too overboard with fantasies of a Brave New World. The Internet, for example, hasn’t transformed human life and society beyond recognition, as some early commentators would have us believe. The old offline political problems of distribution, freedom, and the relation between the individual and society are all mirrored online. As such, the old political resources, and the political sages (from Marx to Smith), remain as relevant as they ever were.
But, the Internet and its associated technologies have altered many of our offline assumptions. In particular – and this is a big one – it changes the assumption that information is hard to get hold of and hard to read. Whilst the nature of power hasn’t been changed, if knowledge is power, what it has done is change the distribution of power. Consequently, it is an instrument that is simultaneously both democratic and Big Brotherish.
This is something elaborated recently in Evgeny Morozov’s sobering book The Net Delusion. The new political space bears a strong family resemblance to other more traditional political spaces, but the resemblance is more marked in some respects than others. The Internet hasn’t changed politics any more than it has changed economics or commerce; but within the traditional paradigm it has thrown up new problems and new issues that policy-makers should be alive to – issues of privacy, freedom of information, security, freedom of speech, and so forth. For instance, there are several websites now that bring together various official registers of information. The recent crime statistics released in the UK is one such example. Registers of sex offenders in the US is another. One can call up a map of one’s home town, or enter a postcode, and the location of registered sex offenders (along with photos) will be indicated, or crime statistics will be listed. None of the information used has been created anew by these websites, it is simply the amalgamation of the data from various databanks that creates the speed and power of the search. Similarly, Twitter has been instrumental in the organisation of grass-roots political action in the recent events of Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.
Second, the new technologies are so central to the conduct of democratic politics in countries such as the UK that distributional questions cannot be left to the market alone. The sheer quantities of information available are (usually) a boon for democratic decision-making. A better informed citizenry makes for better decisions, and a more robust calling to account of officials. Nevertheless, any regulation needs to be light in order that the industry’s astonishing innovatory capacity remains untouched. We should be wary about going in the opposite direction of insisting on closing the digital divide completely by heavily redistributive schemes because of its crushing effects on innovation.
And finally, the information and communications technology industry is a fascinating one, and the effects on all of us, particularly the Internet, has been as dramatic as any event in the last fifty years. It is important that as few people as possible are left behind, compared both to their fellow citizens, and worldwide.
The temptation to muse on the possibilities and the difficulties of ICT’s effect on society is naturally very strong in the political field. But what our study indicated is the importance of understanding how the technology works, what its properties really are, and what the relation is between the science fiction hype and the actual implemented machinery. A pinch of salt needs to be taken with some of the wilder claims, but equally patience has to be shown to some systems of promise. This is as true now (if not truer) than when we penned the book.
Oh, and then I spotted the price tag of £659 and cancelled the order. I think I’ll wait until the iPad drops in price a bit. Always behind the curve…