Home » Blog, Featured

.everyone or .science? Or both? Reflections on Martha Lane Fox’s Dimbleby Lecture

6 April 2015 No Comment
English: Martha Lane Fox

Martha Lane Fox (Photo: The Cabinet Office License: OGL v1.0)

On March 30 the BBC broadcast a 40 minute talk from Martha Lane Fox. The Richard Dimbleby Lecture is an odd beast, a peculiarly British, indeed a peculiarly BBC-ish institution. It is very much an establishment platform, celebrating a legendary broadcaster and ring marshaled by his sons, a family that as our speaker dryly noted are “an entrenched monopoly” in British broadcasting.


Indeed one might argue Baroness Lane Fox, adviser to two prime ministers, member of the House of Lords, is a part of that establishment. At the same time the lecture is a platform for provocation, for demanding thinking. And that platform was used very effectively to deliver a brilliant example of another very British thing, the politely impassioned call for radical (yet moderate) action.

The speech calls for the creation of a new public institution. Dubbed “Dot Everyone” such an institution would educate, engage and inform all citizens on the internet. It would act as a resource, it would show what might be possible, it would enhance diversity and it would explore and implement a more values based approach to how we operate on the web. I have quibbles, things that got skipped over or might merit more examination, but really these are more the product of the space available than the vision itself.

At the centre of that vision is a call for a new civics supported by new institutions. This chimes with me as it addresses many of the same issues that have motivated my recent thinking in the research space. The Principles for Open Infrastructures I wrote with Geoff Bilder and Jennifer Lin, could as easily have been called Principles for Institutions – we were motivated to work on them because we believe in a need for new institutions. For many years I have started talks on research assessment by posing the question “what are your values” – a question implicit in the speech as it probes the ethics of how the internet is built in practice.

I was excited by this speech. And inspired.

And yet.

One element did not sit easily with me. I emphasized the British dimension at the top of this piece. Martha Lane Fox’s pitch was to “make Britain brilliant at the internet” and was focused on the advantages for this country. By contrast the first of the Principles for Open Infrastructures is that these new institutions must transcend geography and have international reach. Is this a contradiction? Are we pushing in different directions? More particularly is there a tension between an institution “for everyone” and one having a national focus?

The speech answers this in part and I think the section is worth quoting in full:

We should be ambitious about this. We could be world leading in our thinking.

In this 800th year anniversary of Magna Carta, the document widely upheld as one of the first examples of the rule of law, why don’t we establish frameworks to help navigate the online world?

Frameworks that would become as respected and global as that rule of law, as widely adopted as the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy.

Clearly this new institution, “our new institution” as it is referred to throughout, has international ambitions. But I don’t imagine I am the only person to find something almost neo-colonial in these words. Britain has sought to export its values to the world many times, and been remarkably successful. But in the past this has also been paternalistic. The very best possible assessment of what was in many cases well intentioned imposition of British values is equivocal. Lane Fox sets up the “good” values of Britain against the lack of values that inhere in the big commercial players building the web. What is it today that make “our” values those that should inspire or lead any more than the, now questionable, values of the past?

To be clear I am absolutely not suggesting that these are issues that have escaped the speaker’s notice. Martha Lane Fox is an outstanding and effective campaigner for diversity and inclusion and the section of her talk that I have taken out of context above comes after a substantial section on the value of inclusion, focused largely on gender but with a recognition that the same issues limit the inclusion and contribution of many people on the basis of many types of difference. In truth, her views on the how and the why of what we need to change, on what those values are, are highly aligned with mine.

But that’s kind of the point.

If we are to have a new civics, enabled by the communications infrastructure that the web provides, then diversity will lie at the heart of this. Whether you take the utilitarian (not to say neo-liberal) view that inclusion and diversity drives the creation of greater value, or see it as simply a matter of justice, diversity and inclusion and acceptance of difference are central.

But at the same time the agile and flat governance models that Lane Fox advocates, to be fair in passing, for our new institution arise out the concept that “rough consensus and running code” are the way to get things done. But whose consensus matters? And how does the structural imbalance of the digital divide affect whose code gets to run first? This seems to me the central question to be resolved by this new civics. How do we use the power of web to connect communities of interest, and to provide infrastructures that allow them to act, to have agency, while at the same time ensuring inclusion.

At its best the web is an infrastructure for communities, a platform that allows people to come together. Yet communities define themselves by what they have in common, and by definition exclude those who do not share those characteristics. My implicit claim above that our institutional principles are somehow more inclusive or more general than Lane Fox’s is obviously bogus. Our focus is on the research community, and therefore just as exclusive as a focus on a single nation. There are no easy answers here.

The best answer I can give is that we need multiple competing centres. “Dot Everyone” is a call for a national institution, a national resurgence even. Alone it might be successful, but even better is for it to have competition. Martha Lane Fox’s call is ambitious, but I think it’s not enough. We need many of these institutions, all expressing their values, seeking common ground to build a conversation between communities, domains, geographies and nations.

The tension between facilitating community and diversity can be a productive one if two conditions are satisfied. First that all can find communities where they belong, and secondly that the conversation between communities is just and fair. This is a huge challenge, it will require nothing less than a new global infrastructure for an inclusive politics.

It is also probably a pipe dream, another well meaning but ultimately incomplete effort to improve the world. But if the lesson we learn from colonialism is that we should never try, then we should give up now. Better is to do our best, while constantly questioning our assumptions and testing them against other’s perspectives.

As it happens, we have some new systems that are pretty good for doing that. We just need to figure out how best to use them. And that, at core, was Martha Lane Fox’s point.



Comments are closed.