Don’t blow IT

Sandy Starr reports on the spiked conference at the Bloomberg Auditorium in London.

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

spiked’s ‘Don’t Blow IT’ conference on 27 September was a resounding success. The event was produced in partnership with the Internet Society of England and GAP21, and held at London’s Bloomberg Auditorium.

Bloomberg’s futuristic look, complete with hi-tech spaces and video screens everywhere you looked, provided the perfect setting for a debate about the potential of information technology (IT).

The response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September gave ‘Don’t Blow IT’ a sobering perspective – providing both a snapshot of how we view the new technologies today and raising the problem of further incursions on online freedom.

Indeed, in the week that the conference took place, US attorney-general John Ashcroft was ushering in new powers of state surveillance – both online and offline. And the day after Don’t Blow IT, UK foreign secretary Jack Straw accused those who defend liberty online of having ‘a two-dimensional view of civil liberties’ – claiming that, post-11 September, surely they ‘will now recognise they were naive in retrospect’.

But if Don’t Blow IT was anything to go by, defenders of online freedom are anything but naive or two-dimensional.

Conference director Helene Guldberg introduced the day by looking at ‘Technophilia, technophobia – and beyond’ – examining how the view of the internet after 11 September captured our ‘love-hate relationship’ with IT. She pointed out that the internet was praised for its ease of communication and rapid reporting – but also condemned for its hoaxes and spam, and even blamed for helping the terrorists to plan their attacks in the first place.

Phil Mullan, CEO of Cybercafé Ltd, presented the second session, ‘Beyond the internet bubble’ – pointing out that it was never really an ‘internet bubble’ in the first place, but more of a ‘financial bubble’. He put the internet boom and crash in perspective, arguing that ‘we have not yet done more than scratch the surface of the potential of these new technologies’. And although we seem to be suffering from a ‘hangover of negativity’ about the internet, said Mullan, ‘the party never really happened – and the real party needs to get underway’.

Mullan pointed to ‘a paradigm of economic and technological restraint’ holding back the economy – as opposed to popular notions of dynamism in the New Economy. This paradigm, he argued, is expressed through the expansion of financial markets, the entrenchment of a short-term business perspective, and a flawed belief that the business world is riven with complexity and uncertainty.

Simon Davies, founder and director of Privacy International, spoke about ‘The destruction of privacy: a global perspective’ – about the ways in which governments are using 11 September to justify incursions upon privacy. Davies announced that Privacy International would take a stand against the introduction of ID cards in the UK.

In the session on ‘Knowledge in the information age’, Charles Leadbeater (author of Living on thin Air: The New Economy) and Dr Frank Furedi (spiked contributor and author of Culture of Fear: Risk-Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation) discussed changing definitions of ‘knowledge’.

Leadbeater was concerned about the difficulty of knowing to whom and to how many people we communicate our knowledge, given the nature of the new technologies. He also looked at how our expectations of what the new technologies would do for our lives had been frustrated.

Furedi examined the elevation of petty information like gossip to the status of knowledge, illustrated by the preoccupation with ‘networking’. His big concern was that universities and other ‘gatekeepers’ of knowledge are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain standards, in the face of the growing relativism.

The final session, chaired by spiked editor Mick Hume, addressed the theme of ‘Privacy, freedom and IT’. Caspar Bowden, founder and director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR), began by spelling out the difference between privacy considerations on- and offline – leading us through a series of regulations, like the UK’s stringent Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act, that threaten our privacy.

Solicitor John Fitzpatrick, director of the Kent Law Clinic, put the case for freedom by invoking Georg Lukács’s argument that ‘freedom is an activity, it is something that we do’. Fitzpatrick explained that the defence of privacy sometimes has negative connotations, when used as a way of avoiding social engagement. But he pointed to the positive side of privacy – as a defence of our personal freedoms from intrusion by the state – that is worth fighting for.

One audience member cited Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy, who once claimed that ‘you already have zero privacy. Get over it’. Fitzpatrick replied that in law we do have entitlement to privacy – and it is essential that we defend it vigilantly.

Mick Hume and Helene Guldberg brought the day to a close by looking to the future – highlighting how Don’t Blow IT is only the beginning of a series of debates, online and offline. Watch this space.

Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read press coverage of Don’t Blow IT:

Why are we so afraid of economic success?, Independent, 8 October 2001

Government snooping will hurt e-commerce, ZDNet, 28 September 2001

Read on:

Beyond the internet bubble by Phil Mullan

spiked-issue: Don’t Blow IT

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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