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Digital Britain? Bah Humbug!

One in an occasional series of pieces rejected by various publishers…

Digital Britain
(…or get your finger out minister)

If there is one thing politicians like even more than talking about doing something, it’s having their civil servants put out a press release about them planning on talking about doing something1. So much easier than actually doing something.

One of these meandered slowly into my inbox recently, released at 10.41 on October the 17th, the email ‘heads-up’ to journalists arrived at 16.18. Why am I making an issue of a five and a half hour delay? Because the announcement is entitled ‘Digital Britain – The Future of Communications’.

It’s a joint release from DCMS and BERR, the Department for Culture Media and Sport and the Department for Business and Regulatory Reform. It’s a model of it’s type starting:

An action plan to secure the UK’s place at the forefront of innovation, investment and quality in the digital and communications industries will be developed by Stephen Carter, the first Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting.

Stephen who? Well a “Note for editors” explains:

The new position of Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting was created by the Prime Minister in recognition of the important role these sectors play in our economy and our society. There is no change to the respective responsibilities of BERR and DCMS in this area. The Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting is a joint appointment to both BERR and DCMS and will report to both Secretaries of State.

Clear now? A bloke you’ve never heard of is going to develop a plan. And that’s news?

Most press releases come with ready made quotes for journalists in a hurry, you didn’t think when you read “Mr X said” or “Ms Y commented” in a paper that some journalist actually heard them and carefully wrote it down do you? In most cases the words were never said at all, they were written by civil servant and may have been approved by the minister. Possibly.

This one has:

Stephen Carter said:
Culture Secretary Andy Burnham said:

and if that’s not enough
Secretary of State for Business Peter Mandelson said:

I won’t bore you with what they are alleged to have said, if you want the full text it’s here: there are platitudes about Convergence, the Digital Economy, Universal Access, Digital Radio, Innovation and Investment. What they didn’t say was:

UK Internet access is almost as bad the US and well behind many so-called developing nations. The digital divide between rich and poor, and between cities and the rest is widening. DAB Radio is dead on it’s feet and broadcast digital TV is irrelevant.

But the real issue is ignored, probably because it’s Environment or Transport or Planning or Employment not DCMS/BERR. The day before this release Environment David Miliband pledged to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, far enough in the future for even a youngish minister to be safely retired or dozing in the Lords before anyone can hold him to account. If he, or anyone else was serious about reducing energy consumption they would do something about the millions of people who commute huge distances every day in order to work on a computer or telephone. In a real Digital Britain we would only travel when it was absolutely necessary for our body to be present. For a haircut maybe, or a medical, to try on clothes or select fresh meat and veg. But to answer the phone and send emails? Surely even a politician can see that’s a nonsense.

Give us the fastest, fattest cabled Internet technology and whack up fuel prices and tax on transport companies to pay for it. Give grants to companies that close call centres and offices and set up virtual private networks for their staff to work at home, or in small local offices. Price sales people off the road and tell them to email a catalogue instead. Make retail chains centralised distribution depots a thing of the past and insist they use IT to organise the shortest possible route between suppliers and local shops, we don’t need Cheshire potatoes in Lincolnshire and vice versa. Decrease school attendance, but increase on-line learning, evening out the discrepancies between “good” and “bad” schools.

In a nutshell, everything will be done on-line if it can be, and nothing moves unless it has to.

It would apply to politicians too, once the infrastructure is right they could cancel the summits and conferences and fact finding trips. Think of the energy that would save.

Politics & Economics

Watching our politicians, economists and journalists arguing about the best, quickest least painful way to restore the world economy to what it was a year or two ago is intensely depressing.

Maybe we should borrow and spend, or maybe we should save and repay. Maybe we should prop up some industries, or all, or none. Maybe we should impose import tarrifs to protect our local producers, or not.

There is no way the public can judge who is right, in the previous crises all of these options have been tried and in the end the economy recovered, but no-one really knows why or how. Nor can we trust the experts who got us into this in the first place, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. The blunt fact is the previous economic and political system was unsustainable, restoring it it like patching up an old car to squeeze it through one more MOT test. Sooner or later the floor will fall out.

I don’t have a slick answer, and I don’t trust anyone who says he has but as a starting point I want politicians and economists to acknowledge that a system that relies on continuous growth is nothing more than the biggest Ponzi scheme of all time. Sooner or later it runs out of resources.

It may be unpalatable but I think it’s about time we started planning a system based on  shrinkage. Fewer people, less manufacturing, less agriculture, less mining, less travel, less energy consumption. I want to hear politicians debating ways of reducing birth rates and figuring out how to manage a declining population. I want them to encourage emigration from over populated, under-resourced regions and stop pandering to out-dated nationalism.

I’m not advocating a return to the dark ages, I want to see the highest possible standard of living for everyone. To achieve that we are going to have to reduce the human population worldwide and share out our resources more equitably.

Kubuntu 8.10

Finally got around to re-installing Kubuntu, and tried the AMD 64 option for the first time in about two years, and it’s not bad. The re-installation has cleared up most of the glitches I got with the earlier upgrade, whether that’s due to clearing out old config files or the result of having a 64 bit OS I don’t know, but KDE 4 is actually pretty good when it works properly. I gave up on 64 bit last time because I could get Flash or Java to work which pretty much ruled out about 50% of the web, now Flash works and although JRE doesn’t, there is an IcedTea plugin instead. So far so good.

Locked files on a CD

Still working on the plumbing book and got a CD of images from a manufacturer but unfortunately over half of them are locked so I can’t open them or even copy them to my PC. Tried Linux and Windows XP. I have a feeling Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator which is where these originate have a lock feature and it looks like it was left on. Asked the supplier for help, but meanwhile if anyone out there is reading this and has any info, please get in touch!

Training

Just had a very useful meeting with Dave Cawley of Denbighshire Enterprise Agency about provision of training for SMEs on Open Source software. Basic idea is that start-ups don’t need to buy a PC with Vista + Office on when a cheap machine from their local shop and a Ubuntu CD, plus a little training from me would be cheaper, more reliable and better for the local economy. Need a business plan next…

Intrepidly going

I’ve just upgraded Kubuntu 8.04 to 8.10 using the distro upgrade tool rather than re-installing, there were one or two issues with unsupported software I’d installed manually in 8.04, but only SK1 remains unresolved. KDE 4 is big on eye-candy but a resource hog so I’ve switched off the ‘effects’ and it’s a lot more responsive. When I have time (huh?) I’ll re-install from scratch to see if it’s better. Meanwhile, looking good.

Trustworthy Blogging

Can you trust this blog? Or any blog? I’ve no problem with blogs from regular media outlets, if you read Indyblogs or Telegraph.co.uk you known where they are coming from, the problem arises when you don’t know who’s paying the piper.

A few years ago if you found some badly written rant about a product you could assume it was a genuine disgruntled customer, if you found a lot you would maybe think twice about buying the product. Likewise spontaneous outpourings of praise might make think it was the best thing since the last best thing cliche. Now I’m not so sure.

PR companies already have specialised search engines to check on how their clients products are perceived, how hard would it be for them to create hundreds of apparently independent blogs? How do we know they haven’t?

Open Office 3

Today’s Beginners’ Linux page features Open Office 3. Since writing it I’ve discovered a snag.

Normally I rely on KDE’s ‘Save Current State’ feature so that when I boot my PC in the morning it opens all the stuff I was working on when I shut it down the night before. Normally it works like a dream but this morning I found I’d lost all the Open Office work I did yesterday despite several saves, autosave and a backup on my file server. It seems that the new version of OO which I installed manually isn’t integrated into KDE properly so it reverts to the version that was saved last time Open Office was shut down maually. Fortunately it wasn’t much work, I spent most of the day researching not writing!

WordPress

I’ve had a static web site for a few years and gradually got better at designing them, but not good enough and the rest of the world has been getting better quicker, so I’m setting up a new one on a new domain using wordpress. If you’ve stumblemd across it already, don’t tell me what’s wrong, it’s a work in progress and I’m learning fast.