Labour Digital: Welcome to the Brave New World

by Jonathan Todd

The internet, claims the opening sentence of The New Digital Age, the bestseller by Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, is among the few things that humans have built that they don’t truly understand. Labour has, however, resolved to learn and act accordingly.

That is the goal of Labour Digital, launched last week at Google Campus. The crossbencher Martha Lane Fox and Labour’s Parry Mitchell, the digital entrepreneurs of the upper house, spoke, as did John McTernan, who will gather digital policy ideas for the next Labour manifesto.

Lane Fox and Mitchell both focused on the digital divide – unequal access to digital technologies. Some are highly digitally literate, many are not, denying them tremendous benefits. As an egalitarian party, correcting this should be a Labour priority.

For 20 years, Labour spokespeople have stressed the need for adaptation to globalisation. Yet, in a seminal mid-1990s paper, Richard Freeman, a Harvard economist, attributed more importance to technological change in determining the wages of the low skilled than international trade. Labour spokespeople, however, have less frequently highlighted the importance of adaptation to technological change.

Labour is improving on this front and further such will be encouraged and facilitated by Labour Digital. It was notable, for example, during his speech to the Fabian Society earlier this year, largely about professing his love of prudence, Ed Balls declared himself staggered that there is more computing power in his Blackberry than in the Apollo rocket that landed on the moon in 1969.

As Labour policy and rhetoric catches up with what Freeman was saying two decades ago, another leading thinker is cautioning against overstating the salience of digital in explaining our world. That power is decaying is the central thesis of Moisés Naím’s book. Political, business, military and religious leaders find it harder to get their own way these days. Power is more easily gained and lost, which is reaping whirlwinds in all facets of life.

This process is not, however, according to Naím, “driven by the Internet specifically or by information technology more generally. The Internet and other tools are undeniably transforming politics, activism, business, and, of course, power. But too often, this fundamental role is exaggerated and misunderstood.”

One kind of counter argument to Naím is that digital is creating new power concentrations. Most obviously, the host’s of last week’s Labour Digital event, Google. This business is the General Electric of our century, in the view of the FT’s John Gapper, while it something “real progressives” should want to see broken up, argues Richard Sennett.

“The problem is simple”, Sennett claims, “the company is just too powerful”. Which makes it sound more like one of the citadels of unaccountable power that so agitates Ed Miliband than something that his party’s brightest minds should be hanging out with.

It’s certainly the case that while Nesta are right to note that “the creative economy is one of the few industrial areas where the UK has a credible claim to be world–leading”, many in the creative industries are eager to preserve existing copyright frameworks, which they see Google and other digital businesses as eroding.

Irrespective of whether holders of creative copyright or technology distributors have the strongest claims in their ongoing debates, there must be losers as well as winners in the brave new world. Not just businesses that fail to adapt or are undermined by IP policy. But an ever growing cadre of skilled workers whose skills obsolesce. “We are entering an age of permanent anxiety”, one of these workers, a journalist formerly employed by a national newspaper, said to me recently.

In addition to the squeeze of the middle being magnified by the redundancy of long valued skills, another source of anxiety is who holds what data on us and why. Big data both sustains the benefits of personalised medicine and fuels the fears of cloud scepticism, as Uncut noted in our preview of the big ideas of 2014 and Lane Fox observed in her speech.

William Beveridge’s five “Great Evils” – squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease – must be reconceptualised. How can we avoid ignorance about who holds our data? How can we ensure that digital reaps new jobs and industries, not want of work and idleness? How can the digital divide be closed to eliminate lack of internet access increasing squalor and the cost of living?

Labour Digital is a fantastic innovation. But we need to be clear about what digital is changing and what it isn’t. It’s not, as Naím argues, the only thing changing the nature of power – and, thus, the capacity of Labour to secure our ends.

We also need to be open-eyed about the risks of digital as well as the opportunities. These potentially include: misuse of data, sharpened inequalities, new concentrations of unaccountable power, and destruction of the creative industries, as well as a more general failure to create the number of jobs necessary to sustain the standard of living to which we are accustomed.

Hopefully, the Pragmatic Radicalism event on 13 May, chaired by Lord Mitchell, will provide some answers.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut 

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One Response to “Labour Digital: Welcome to the Brave New World”

  1. aragon says:

    Forty Five Years of Moore’s Law passes politician by shock …

    Exponential growth, an alien concept to Economics?

    “It’s certainly the case that while Nesta are right to note that “the creative economy is one of the few industrial areas where the UK has a credible claim to be world–leading”, many in the creative industries are eager to preserve existing copyright frameworks, which they see Google and other digital businesses as eroding.”

    Copyright a Government sponsored monopoly for life plus seventy years which benefits the distributors not the ‘creators’ and acts against the public interest.

    Speaking of Intellectual Property we should reject the “Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership”

    Both on the grounds of the disputes process (ISDS) and the Intellectual Property changes. In fact the deal offers little and threatens Britain’s sovereignty in many areas and further embed Neoliberalism through an international trade deal.

    “Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary, said: “These clauses could thwart attempts by a future government to bring our health service back towards public ownership.””

    As usual politicians have no clue about the fundamentals but concentrate on trivia. Neoliberalism is the problem not the solution.

    One recent contributor did not appear to understand the meaning of Neoliberalism (a political and economic philosophy!).

    “Neoliberalism is a political philosophy whose advocates support economic liberalizations, free trade and open markets, privatization, deregulation, and enhancing the role of the private sector in modern society”

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