Is innovation fair?

Is innovation fair? Has the Internet revolution resulted in more social justice and equality for everyone in society?

Not according to Helen Milner, the managing director of UK Online Centres, an organization that works with both the public and private sectors to bring technology to everyone in the UK. On Tuesday evening, I had the great privilege to attend an invitation-only Channel 4 sponsored debate entitled Recasting The Net chaired by Charlie Beckett director of LSE’s Polis institute, which featured Milner, Channel 4's open-source idealist Tom Loosemore and the surprisingly wired editor of the ancient Spectator news weekly, Matthew d'Ancona.

The real subject of last week’s debate was social justice on the Internet and it was Milner who, for better or worse, stole the Channel 4/Polis show. She spoke impassionedly on behalf of the 25% of people in the UK who, she claimed, have neither access to the Internet nor knowledge of how to use digital technology. This 21st century unwired class, Milner suggested, was the new lumpenproletariat cast adrift in an increasingly online centric world of cheap and convenient Internet services and goods.

Milner is certainly right in some ways. The old digital divide is now a chasm. The 25% of people in the UK who have no access to the Internet are, indeed, profoundly unequal with the rest of us – the 75% who have the good fortune or wisdom to know our way around the Internet. As Web 2.0 morphs into the raging real-time stream of services like Twitter, those poor souls who don’t even know how to send emails are, like their mid 19th century handworker ancestors, doomed to analogue oblivion. Luddism is for losers. Aside from the super rich who can afford their own Internet butlers, technological ignorance is the symbol of failure, the red cross of shame, in our Darwinian digital “democracy”.

But what should be done? The unfortunate truth is that innovation isn’t fair. Nor is the Internet, especially today’s real-time web. Rather than creating more equality, it has actually generated massive accumulations of power amongst a tiny new elite of attention-economy aristocrats like Silicon Valley new media baron Tim O’Reilly who has more than 500,000 loyal Twitter followers. For all the promises of democratization, real-time landed gentry like O’Reilly and increasingly monopolistic technology companies like Google and Amazon might actually be reinventing the radically unequal hierarchies of mid 19th century capitalism in the new digital age.  

The problem with Milner’s argument is that she has a 20 century welfare-state style solution to a 21st century problem. At the Channel 4 debate last week, she suggested that we all somehow have a moral duty to help the unwired 25%. But is this really true? Without wishing to sound too self-helpish, how much should we do to drag the uninitiated into the network? Especially since the raison-d’etre of the Internet is rooted in individual innovation and initiative.

So my advice to the 25% of you out there who don’t have access to the Internet is pretty simple (not of course that you'll read this electronic message). Rather than relying on 20th century do-gooders like Helen Milner, you need to beg, steal or borrow to get yourself wired in the 21st century. Computers today often cost less than televisions and broadband access is about the same price as cable. Many of today’s mobile telephones are mini computers. There are now many libraries, schools, cafés, community centres and even churches with online computers. The digital future is yours. But only the networked will survive.