It seems strange now that in 1998, when Brent Hoberman asked me to help him start lastminute.com, our main challenge was convincing investors, customers, and the media that the Internet wasn't going to blow up. We didn't just have to answer questions about the specifics of our business — we had to reassure people that buying products online using a credit card was a realistic idea.
At that time, in London, there were only a handful of investors who would even consider supporting an Internet-based company, and most of them refused to meet with us. But we were buoyed up by our enthusiasm for this new technology and the power it gave us. We wanted to challenge the travel-and-leisure enterprises we saw as unfriendly and old-fashioned. We spent months talking at any conference that invited us, to any journalist that wanted an angle, and, if memory serves, at the opening of several envelopes. Eventually, we got lucky.
Part of what motivated me, a relatively inexperienced woman in her mid-twenties, was the potential one could sense at the time for old hierarchies to be broken and new powers to emerge. The excitement about what the Web was enabling was palpable among a small but growing band of converts. I felt sure that a revolution was at hand.
It seemed clear that its impact was going to extend beyond hotel bookings. I thought that the growing use of the Internet would enable a new wave of creators to emerge, from a more diverse range of places than had been possible before. I imagined that the empowerment that came with Internet access would allow people from traditionally disadvantaged communities to emerge as leaders. I thought that the strong culture of employee share ownership and collaborative working styles would shift power. I hoped that it would create more gender equality, as well.
I anticipated a resurgence in political engagement enabled by technology, and expected the UK to produce hundreds of globally successful tech organizations. Perhaps most importantly, I imagined that the internet would be a place of discovery — fragmented and serendipitous, with transparency at its core.
When I look back on that time now, I still have to pinch myself to believe that the landscape has ended up as it is. I was mistaken on so many levels.
Don't get me wrong — I'm an optimist, and I feel lucky to have been in and around the tech sector my whole working life. But I think that this is a good moment to reflect on how it's all going.
Speaking slightly parochially, here in the UK there have certainly been successes. There have been valuable businesses created, particularly in ecommerce; it seems the nation of shopkeepers has morphed into a nation of online shoppers. Online retail claims a greater market share here than it does anywhere else in the world. The company that supplies the core designs for 95 percent of the world's smartphone microchips — ARM — was a UK startup. We have developed vibrant adtech and fintech sectors, as well.
Meanwhile, the Government Digital Service (in which I declare an interest, as a member of its Digital Advisory Board) has re-created government services for the modern age with its launch of gov.uk. This September, computer science — coding — was put on the standard primary-school curriculum.
However, many of the challenges we face in the UK will be familiar. Only one of our top ten websites — the BBC's — is British, and a look at the rest of the list shows the grip a handful of companies have over our digital experience. When we started Lastminute.com, there was no Google, certainly no Facebook, and it was anyone's guess what would happen to Apple. How quickly the world has changed. The incredible growth of these companies, coupled with Amazon's relentless pursuit of revenue, has remade the Web for many.
Perhaps even more seriously, we are not equipped with digital skills at all levels of society. There are 10 million adults in the UK who are unable to meet our basic digital skills threshold — preventing them from saving money, getting work, and gaining education. We are creating a two-tier society at a time the world should be flattening.
Many in our political class, meanwhile, are themselves not well enough equipped to debate the urgent digital issues of our day. We have been woefully quiet on the subject of liberty versus security. Allegations that GCHQ, the UK's equivalent to the NSA, worked to undermine encryption should caution anyone who trusts the Web with their medical, financial, or personal records. We face hard questions as we grapple with the technology we already know about, let alone the developments coming in the future.
The UK has been at the heart of the communications revolution. As Information Age, the latest gallery in London's Science Museum, clearly illustrates, we played a role in many pivotal moments — from underwater cables to the US in 1858 to the Lyons tea factory computational machines in the 1950s, to the work of Tim Berners-Lee in the 1980s. We are good at agitating — good at championing the underdog. I hope we can lead an international conversation about the Internet as it enters its next phase. We should be leading the world in thinking about how everyone can benefit from access to technology, and how personal data and privacy can be protected at the same time.
The wired world of today is wildly different from the one my shoddy late-nineties predictions anticipated. Every day I find something magical, marvelous, and sometimes mad within it, as I sit down with my screens of all different sizes.
Through it all, though, I remain an optimist. Let's keep fighting for an internet that enables the maximum number of creators, rebels and pioneers of all shapes and sizes to emerge and prosper.
-Martha Lane Fox
This article is part of a series of posts occasioned by the publication of Cory Doctorow's Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age, with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer. Kirkus Reviews called it "a guide to the operation of the Internet that not only makes sense, but is also written for general readers."
(Image: Blind Justice, Tim Green, CC-BY)