If my grandfather were alive today he would view the world of his grandson as being near to Utopia. I, myself, was born and grew up in the aftermath of the second world war in what has developed into an amazing risk-free society for an elite part of my generation. This is the greatest time to be alive.
But we are ill prepared, in terms of our language and thinking, and have a very distorted idea of what risk actually is. There is a wrongly held assumption that if you minimise risk you eliminate it and that is good.
Beware of technology forecasters
Any technologist attempting to forecast the future should be treated with great caution. As an example, I quote from an article in Scientific American magazine from way back in 1900 commenting on the benefit of the important innovation of that period: “The telephone has proved very successful in the West in places where distant farmhouses are connected by wire, as it enables them to give each other warning of the approach of tramps. It is also useful in cases of fire or sickness.”
The trouble is that if you actually stand in the middle of the technology revolution, it is amazing how inaccurate people turn out to be. Nevertheless you can be hopelessly wrong in forecasting and still make a tremendous amount of money.
One of my favourite gurus, Paul Strassmen, once said: “The history of IT can be characterised by the overestimation of what can be achieved immediately and the underestimation of the long-term consequences.” This is the important point. Just because the technology exists it does not mean that useful developments are going to happen very quickly. Sometimes the short-term and the long-term implications are very different.
Information technology is having a major impact on the structure of work. The days of 14,000 workers going into a factory every day are becoming a thing of the past. What we are seeing is the restructuring of work into much smaller units.
We are also seeing the restructuring of governments. If you look at the economies making the fastest transition to a knowledge economy and adapting to these new technologies (Norway, Sweden, Singapore, Costa Rica, Finland), they are all relatively small economies. There does not appear to be a critical mass effect whereby the United Kingdom is too big to manage the transition. The opportunity exists for these smaller economies to leapfrog their larger competitors.
All of this is happening in the period of one generation. This is not a good time to be in charge of anything because the rules of the old world have now broken down. If you are in charge, you must show that you know what you are doing, look as if you know where you are going and provide measures to show how you are progressing towards your goal.
Forget the big vision - look at the big processes
Nothing is very clear. Anyone who predicts what the world is going to be like in ten years time, what the knowledge economy is going to be like - just do not listen to them. We are going through a period of enormous risk and uncertainty and there is an incredible lack of clarity and structure. The economy, society, the nation state are unclear and whilst a lot of people will tell you that the internet changes everything, it changes nothing.
I do not believe that there is a vision. If you look at the way the world is changing, people in charge of organisations, faced with dramatic overload, do one thing - they just shut down. They are worried about their reputation if they get it wrong.
Although people generally focus on the big vision they should really be focusing on the big processes. The process of “joining up” is where we should look rather than the outcome.
There has been a generation shift in lifelong learning. My father went to primary school, secondary school, then to the army, to an apprenticeship, to work and then to retirement. He was fully employed for all his working life but after the age of 30 he only had five days' training and that was in his fifties, on computers. I argue that we have moved from a sequential model of lifelong learning to a parallel model where once you are in work you are constantly retraining to keep skills up to speed. And it is the constant need for re-skilling that is significant because skills learnt today rapidly become obsolete.
If you are lucky enough to have access to such continuous training you can manage your own salary and there is a premium on your talent. However, for the unemployed people stuck in the “leisure economy” - access to training to get back into work is very restricted and they become trapped into low wages, low skills and longer periods of unemployment.
Minimum skills to earn a living wage in the global economy are rising dramatically fast and conversely there is a reduced demand for low-skilled workers for industries such as coal and steel.
The new technology is pervasive. By the end of last year there were 50 billion microprocessors in the world. That is to say eight for every man, woman and child. By 2010, there will probably be 100 billion microprocessors for every man, woman and child and this will be instrumental in the dramatic reduction in the cost of networking.
We have now started to learn the boundaries between the computer and the internet. It is important to realise that the vast majority of computer intelligence is now inside things we do not perceive as computers. The next two to three years will see some very interesting products emerging in the market place including intelligent textiles such as digital underwear and digital jewellery which will be able to give users information on their health, warning of heart attacks and other ailments.
Another reason why people get it so wrong about technological progress is that they make the assumption that the majority of innovations come from suppliers. It is customers and communities which are in charge. This is where the technological creativity will come from. Problems in the environment, with AIDS, cancer and the like, are being tackled inversely through the worldwide web and that is where the intellectual property will be created. Anyone trying to devise a company based solely on intellectual property must be very careful and watch for inverse innovation.
The biggest mistake that people make is thinking that social exclusion refers specifically to poverty and the poor but it is much more complex than that. We need to look at social exclusion in a much broader sense, in terms of age, ability, education levels, access to work, access to health, ethnicity, gender and disability.
For example if you study the Asian community you will see that their preferred technology is the mobile phone. In the Afro-Caribbean community you will find that Afro-Caribbean women have more access to PCs than Afro-Caribbean men. But the largest group totally excluded from access to any of the new technologies is white working class couples bringing up children.
The problem we face in adapting to and maximising the potential of the new information technology is that public policy gets in the way and politicians become involved. They want everything done fast because they want to get re-elected and they want everyone to benefit immediately and for everyone to be consulted. They then run pilots but when they get the results from the pilot they find that they cannot replicate it on the larger scale or they throw a lot of money at it, and then more, because it is not going fast enough. However, they fail to realise that it is not just a resource issue.
When managing the transition there are things that genuinely will take time and we must adjust our expectations to know what we can change and what we cannot.
Developing a learning society
Whilst information technology is part of the problem, it is also part of the solution and we want to use it to develop a learning society.
The challenge I set myself in 1995 was to see how we could re-engineer education to support lifelong learning. The model I started to work with looked at the concept of networked learning.
Looking back at the industrial society, we see that we created all sorts of important social structures (trade unions, mutuals, co-operative movement, public libraries, local authorities, museums and galleries, police, redbrick universities and polytechnics). These were and still are the important innovations that actually made the industrial society stable over several generations. And we have experience of social innovation around information too (Post Office - universal flat rate access to mail; BT - universal flat rate access to telephony; BBC - universal flat rate access to analogue radio and TV). This led me to thinking about universal flat-rate access to learning.
So I developed the idea for the National Grid for Learning. We tried to find a way of building end-to-end stability against a background of rapid changes in technology and to build a universal access infrastructure in the first period of parliament to underpin the educational renaissance that I believe we need. This is a start towards building a whole series of information structures: the National Grid for learning, for business, for government, for environment, for justice, for health, etc.
The real difficulty will be in restructuring education funding. The important innovation I want to see is the development of a fund for learning in schools and colleges. The introduction of individual learning accounts in the UK this year by the Department for Education and Employment is a start towards that goal.
Over 200 years ago Adam Smith quite accurately suggested that funding universities is immoral because it takes away the power and responsibility from where it should lie. Educational institutions should be working out ways to fund learners so that they can buy their own learning rather than providing lists of the learning they want to provide as the dominant model for lifelong learning.
Some potential barriers
But there are some key issues that will need addressing - the pensions “time bomb”, the skills gap, the cost of universal access, the breakdown in trust which all institutions face, from government to politicians, and from journalists to the private sector. There is a great deal of cynicism towards them.
The group that has the most interest in actually stopping the IT revolution is the disabled group. The Disability Discrimination Act could stop a lot of the things that the technologists want to do because the use of the internet as a visual medium is not accessible to the visually impaired.
One of the most fundamental things that we must give our children is the language to manage and understand the technology and to work within a risk environment. The Health and Safety Executive has been the most damaging thing for educational science by taking away all the things that kids of my age group loved to do because they are too risky. Risk is a good and positive part of life. We live in a risk society. If we don't educate people to cope with and relish the opportunities that risk brings then we are moving away from our biological base.
The new Renaissance
The period we are living in has more in common with the Renaissance of Florence in 1480 than the industrial revolution of the 19th Century. We are building a knowledge, led economy but we are seeing a blurring of the boundaries between arts, humanities, science and technology. This is a period of new ideas and enormous risk and uncertainty. The biggest uncertainty is time. People forget that the gap between the invention of the helicopter and its realisation as a machine was more than 400 years.
There are many things we think we can do with technology and we assume that they can be achieved next week but in reality they may not actually happen for 200 to 300 years. Timing is the single biggest issue.
If you want to understand the risk and what is likely to happen, look at the thinking and behaviour of people. Look at what people want, need and aspire to rather than focusing on what the technology can and cannot do. That will be the most accurate predictor.
In his 1999 book, The New Renaissance, Douglas Robertson said: “The generation that is alive today has an opportunity to design the next civilisation. That is not something given to every generation.” This is the most wonderful time to be alive as long as we learn to manage risk, and not suppress or minimise it.
Dr Chris Yapp is ICL Fellow of Virtual Learning.