Illustration by Jasper Rietman Illustration: Jasper Rietman
Countless decisions must soon be made about how Britain navigates the world, having cut itself adrift from the European Union. And alongside the obvious things like trade deals and immigration rules, we ought too to make choices about who and how we want to be as a society. What is Britain in the 21st century? What do we value? What do we fight for?
Perhaps, as I have worked in the internet sector my whole life, I view things through biased eyes. But it seems to me that our digital economy must be at the centre of all this: not just the startups that innovate or the speed of the infrastructure, but the ethics and morals that will guide us.
We are in an age of marvellous technology but also of staggering incomprehension. We rely on technology for almost everything – our banks, our healthcare, our transport – but we have no idea how it might work or how to hold it to account. At best, that leads to “understand the necessary hashtags”-style blunders. At worst, it leads to companies having the freedom to make foolish or unethical decisions that put our privacy and security at risk.
These are massive issues, ones yoked to nearly every aspect of our lives and nearly every level of our government. And yet no society in the world has yet stood up to demand greater control over its digital destiny. No country has committed itself to building technology as fair as it is convenient. It is here, in thespace where ethics and tech meet, that Britain could become a world leader.
Like the Swiss with luxury and the Germans with efficiency, Britain should build a future based on decency. In this brave new post-Brexit world, let’s choose to be a country that believes technology in and of itself is not enough – that demands it be fair, ethical, and sustainable as well.
So what might such a country look like? It could be one that celebrates not just digital skills but digital understanding – the ability to both use technology and to comprehend, in real terms, the impact that it has on our lives. Estonia has been investing in tech education since 1998, when all schools in the country went online; today, companies such as Skype are worth billions of dollars and, as co-founder Taavet Hinrikus told the Economist back in 2013, high-school students now dream of being entrepreneurs instead of rock stars.
It could be one that builds a sector where the people who make and maintain our technology are as diverse as the people who use it. France has just announced a new programme to promote gender equality in start-ups – a smart move, since diverse teams are profitable teams.
It could be one that stops asking what our government can do for tech companies and starts asking tech companies what they can do for the government. The United States Digital Service imports private-sector experts for “tours of duty” to redesign their federal products and services, making tech consultancy a patriotic act.
It could be one that lets young people explore the online world in anonymity as they grow. The EU is working on a plan to allow young people to delete their internet history aged 18, tackling head-on one of the major anxieties faced by parents and teachers alike.
Or it could be one that calls on every sector to build innovative, forward-thinking cyber security. Consider how Israel has private companies, venture capitalists, research universities and the military all working to make sure their nation is safe from digital attack.
These are not revolutionary ideas. Beneath the shiny words – “cyber security”, “venture capitalists” – lie some of our oldest, purest values. We must educate our children. We must fight for fairness. We must protect ourselves. Britain has been doing this since time immemorial – it is only the tools at our disposal that have changed.
So let us educate our children by teaching them as much as we can about technology. We need to go beyond basic skills to raise the first generation of native digital understanders – people who, unlike most of the rest of us, know where and how their technology is made. Imagine a Britain where tech no longer scares or dazzles us, where it is as useful but unremarkable as a wristwatch. In such a society, we would be less likely to fall prey to scams, make bad policy choices, or be taken in by gadgets that serve no purpose and solve no problem.
Let us fight for fairness by demanding a tech sector as diverse as the population it serves. We have far and away the largest digital economy in Europe, but it is shockingly monolithic: according to Tech City’s 2017 Tech Nation report, men outnumber women three to one in more than half of our digital businesses. Imagine a Britain where more girls chose Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers and more women built our tech products and services. It would be one that avoided a digital skills gap entirely by training up the 51% of the population it has so far failed to reach.
And let us protect ourselves by setting firm rules about digital safety. After the second world war, we decided that civilians should never be targets of violence. Nearly 70 years later, we still abide by the humanitarian guidelines of the fourth Geneva convention. Imagine a Britain that pushed for a digital Geneva convention – one that safeguarded us virtually as well as physically. It would be one that, like Switzerland, would be remembered in history books for making the world a more just place.
This is not just about tech. It is about finding the future of Britain. We’re about to become a smaller country, more alone in a large world. We need something to anchor ourselves to – something to remind us of who we are and where we’re heading. We are nothing if not strongly moral, and we are headed nowhere more rapidly than a digitally enabled future. There is no society more fit to lead the world in ethical technology, and so the role is ours for the taking.
Let’s be honest: we are never going to be Silicon Valley. Good digital strategies notwithstanding, the value of the entire European tech sector is just 7% of that of America’s. Instead, let’s be the first nation to recognise that technology is not some sort of arcane art. It is, like everything else, the work of people – people who deserve protection, who need encouragement, who want more control.
Let’s lead the world with our ethical, fair, sustainable and responsible technology. It is here, in the most human part of the sector, where Britain can soar.
• This article was amended on 10 April 2017. An earlier version listed English as a Stem subject when it should have been engineering.
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