Digital Britain


The UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport (I still think this is a crazy mixture, but…)  published its final report on Digital Britain on 16th June 2009.  It claims that “The Digital Britain Report is the Government’s strategic vision for ensuring that the UK is at the leading edge of the global digital economy. It is an example of industrial activism in a crucial growth sector. The report contains actions and recommendations to ensure first rate digital and communications infrastructure to promote and protect talent and innovation in our creative industries, to modernize TV and radio frameworks, and support local news, and it introduces policies to maximize the social and economic benefits from digital technologies”.

The key measures it recommends are:

  • A three-year National Plan to improve Digital Participation
  • Universal Access to today’s broadband services by 2012
  • Next Generation fund for investment in tomorrow’s broadband services
  • Digital radio upgrade by the end of 2015
  • mobile spectrum liberalisation, enhancing 3G coverage and accelerating Next Generation mobile services
  • robust legal and regulatory framework to combat Digital Piracy
  • support for public service content partnerships
  • a revised digital remit for Channel 4
  • consultation on funding options for national, regional and local news

One of the most interesting statements in the executive summary is that “For individuals a quiet revolution has delivered seamless connectivity almost everywhere. That revolution ranges from personal pocket libraries of music, audiovisual content and increasingly electronic literature on a scale inconceivable ten years ago; inexpensive broadband which allows efficient and family-friendly working patterns in the knowledge sector of the economy – and broadband at increasing speeds – the next generation of which, already available to nearly half Britain’s homes, allows us to send or receive 200 mp3 music files in five minutes, an entire Star Wars DVD in 3 minutes and the total digitised works of Charles Dickens in less than 10 minutes. It has given us access to a wide range of social networks, allowing us to share experiences and swap and create content. The digital revolution has also led to a huge expansion in the creation and availability of professional content. Today, the typical British consumer spends nearly half of their waking hours engaged in one form or another with the products and services of the communications sector”.  The report goes on to assert that “The UK is already a digitally enabled and to a significant degree digitally dependent economy and society. The Digital Britain Report aims to be a guide-path for how Britain can sustain its position as a leading digital economy and society”.

To my mind, the report is overly up-beat.  It fails satisfactorily to address the real challenges associated with a digital Britain, and especially:

  • it focuses primarily on the technological and economic dimensions – and not enough on the social, cultural and political issues raised by these
  • there is nothing overtly on the ethical and moral issues raised by this particular vision of a ‘digital Britain’ (‘ethics’ and ‘moral’ are words that are not even mentioned in the report)
  • although trying to grapple with some of the issues surrounding unequal access, its solutions are unlikely to have a significant impact on the lives of Britain’s poorest people and communities – the concept of a ‘digital divide’ is only mentioned three times, and there is no mention of words such as ‘inequalities’ or ‘inequality’; ‘equity’ is only mentioned twice.  The market cannot provide effective solutions for the most marginalised – and it should be the role of government to intervene to ensure that as many people as possible can benefit from the potential that such technologies can offer
  • insufficient attention is paid to the negative effects of the digital economy – in terms of the ways in which it reinforces power relationships, and enables ever greater ‘control’ and manipulation of the majority by the few.  The anarchic potential of the Internet is also insufficiently explored – and is treated negatively in the only place where it is addressed (“Most consumers, except the minority of the anarchic or those who believe in ‘freedom to’ without its counterbalancing ‘freedom from’, who believe in unsupported rights without countervailing duties, would prefer to behave lawfully if they can do so practically and with a sense of equity” p.110).  “Web 2.0” is likewise only mentioned once!
  • as I have argued elsewhere, one of the implications of Britain sustaining “its position as a leading digital economy and society” is that this will necessarily mean that it will relatively disadvantage those in poorer countries of the world.  Given my own interest in trying to ensure that poor people and marginalised communities can also truly benefit from digital communities, I am concerned by the complete lack of attention that this report pays to issues of ‘development’ – Africa is not mentioned at all, and ‘developing countries’ are only mentioned once to exemplify the impact of mobile ‘phones therein!  I wonder what colleagues in the UK’s Department for International Development have to say about this – another excellent example of lack of joined up government!

The UK government needs to understand that ICTs are about much more than simply the technology and the economy – if we are truly to use them to make the world a better place, we must emphasise the social, political and cultural aspects of their use much more than does this report on Digital Britain.

For other commentary in the UK press see:

  • James Ashton in the Times: A blurred vision for Digital Britain
  • Matthew Horsman in the Daily Telegraph: Only a sketchy road map of Digital Britain
  • BBC News: Digital Britain countdown begins
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