Oh no – an ‘institution’
Her key idea, the only concrete recommendation, is an ‘Institution’. When in doubt – the Brits always recommend an institution. This is the British way. I’ve asked a number of internet entrepreneurs what they thought of this and the replies were scathing. Steve Rayson was typical “The US does not dominate the internet because they set up an institution. I just spent the last week on the West Coast and things are accelerating at a pace. There is huge energy, investment, risk taking and urgency. The UK will fall behind because it moves too slow.”
I emailed my local Digital Catapult (latest of many institutions in the Digital field) in Brighton, five days ago – still no reply! We spawn institutes and quangos like slurry on fields – most fail. The budget gets gobbled up by head-hunters hiring expensive staff, many of whom come from other similar organisations that have failed. Then there’s the expensive building, usually in the most expensive city in the UK – London. Then the expensive, London-based staff with researchers galore. The CEO is often a civil servant and the chair one of the great and the good, with a board of buffers who finger-peck away at their tablets in meetings, thinking that this is what it feels like to be in ‘tech’. New website, new IT, usually some awful membership offer and plenty of networking events with canapés.
The problem with institutions is that they start to serve not the cause they were set up to tackle but themselves. As they have high overheads so after the initial funding runs out they need income, and as the membership model has had its back broken by that huge free institution, the internet, they struggle. That’s when survival becomes their goal and people lose interest. If you want a perfect example, look at the Institute for Learning.
She’s all wrong on this. This is NOT about UK national regulation – that’s cornershop thinking. The internet is borderless, so international regulation is the real battleground. No mention of the big issues from Martha. No mention of the most important concept - net neutrality. The problem with localised, national regulation, is the pettiness and, to be frank, ignorance, of politicians. I’m glad Martha’s in the House of Lords, but I’m not sure that she’s even in my top 100 people when it comes to really contributing and knowing about the regulatory issues. That aside, because the House of Lords brims with lackeys and political appointees, with an average age well over 70, they are far removed from being able to even grasp the issues, never mind tackle the issue of regulation. So we end up with impractical filters and laws that do nothing to really tackle the issues at hand. On the whole they see the web through a pathological lens, as an uncivilised pit of vipers, corrupting the young. On a national level it is avoiding awful regulation that is the task at hand – not the introduction of Middle England and Victorian values into laws that simply don’t work.
Women in IT is an issue but gender politics is not, in my view, the key to success. It’s sometimes difficult to even express this view as people confuse the political with the practical. No one would argue that more women should be involved in the digital world but to what problem is this the solution? The technology, open internet and international regulation are the great equalisers. Let equality of opportunity bloom but don't confuse this with getting on with the job of getting things done.
When Martha was given the title UK Digital Champion, the Inclusion Tzar, so removed was she in terms of background and experience that the joke was that her idea of equality and participation was to ‘give everyone a pony’. It sounded good, but the Soho-based organisation was filled by her posh mates and little was really achieved. She’s as ‘establishment’ as you get and the solution to raising access and participation was never another privately-educated, Oxford type. Interestingly as the talk unfolded one question kept coming back to me – she failed to solve this problem, despite the considerable funding last time round, so what makes us think she has the solutions now? It was all a bit lastminute.com – lots of tired old destinations and ideas, aggregated together in a talk. There was nothing new. As for the strapline ‘to be brilliant at the internet’ it's meaningless and awful.
My disappointment was confirmed when I tried the website - it was down for most of yesterday. It’s up today but is nothing more than a transcript of her talk. When I really looked for new ideas I found nothing. Even worse, I found a lot of vague and weak nonsense. Here’s a typical sentence “In this 800th year anniversary of Magna Carta, why don’t we establish frameworks to help navigate the online world?” What the hell does this even mean?