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Don't blow IT


A stimulating one-day conference discussed a wide range of issues, including privacy, risk, civil liberties and innovation OK - a day-long computer conference that was interesting. You will have to stay with me on this one. Not only was this event interesting, it was so challenging that no one left before the end and people adjourned to the local pub to carry on the discussion.

This was certainly no ordinary commercial debate about which type of drawing package fits best with which type of unintelligible hardware. Nobody mentioned DXFs, JAVA scripts or vector formats and, notwithstanding the fact that the audience was a veritable Who's Who of the IT world, technobabble and net-speak were thin on the ground.

The venue at Bloomberg auditorium in London's Moorgate was a great choice. Like something out of Bladerunner, the rooms were a bustle of media-types scuttling past video walls to pick up their speed-lunches and caffeine-fixes. A glass staircase led us down to the lower level across a red-glass landing, which had TV images projected across it alongside FTSE ticker-tape LEDs of the latest share-option news, literally and metaphorically spiralling into the void above my head. The potentials of Internet communications oozed from every video screen.

Produced by spiked, in partnership with the Internet Society of England and GAP21, the conference was set up to critique both technophobia and technophilia; to examine issues of online privacy and to challenge business short-termism.


Phil Mullen, chief executive of Cybercafe, set the tone for the day by contextualising the debate in terms of the terrorist attacks in New York.

The so-called economic slowdown, catalysed by events, was well documented prior to 11 September, in what he characterised as a 'culture of limits'. This, he said, was summed up in a 'new paradigm of economic and technological restraint, whereby even though we could take automation in production, for example, to a qualitatively higher level, there is currently too little investment, deep thinking and purposeful experimentation'. Advocating that we 'challenge restraint in all its forms', he exposed much of the current hype about the Internet as a 'financial rather than a technological bubble, with no real lasting infrastructural legacy'.

Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, argued that the aftermath of the events in New York will see a 'demise of due process with a rise of unaccountable bodies' to monitor Internet communications.

Whether by private companies or state bodies, Davies advocated that these infringements be closely monitored and challenged as necessary.

Charles Leadbetter, author of Living on Thin Air: The New Economy, retitled his session, 'Whatever Happened to Digitopia', and explored the lifestyle implications of new technologies. We are, he insisted, 'not a knowledge economy, but an ignorance economy; relying on specialists' and choosing to distance ourselves from our technologicallydriven work experiences. Leadbetter suggested that this was why people were tuning in to makeover and gardening programmes. Examining the consumer market and advertising hype, he explained that, while IT reflects a 'dream of Utopia', it was, in fact, 'inventing really trivial needs'.

Taking up on this theme, Frank Furedi, from the University of Kent in Canterbury, said that knowledge does not have much substance in the phrase 'knowledge economy'. In this world, he said, 'banal experiences are endowed with meaning'. Whether networking, surfing or liaising online, much of the IT industry is based on short-termist and petty information flows. Reflecting on the changes within academia, he explained that 'it is not just science, but real knowledge itself which is feared'. Advocating new standards of knowledge, outside the relativist concept which believes that 'access to knowledge' is the same as knowledge itself, Furedi warned that we are even beginning to lack a common vocabulary to discuss real issues.

To communicate is human

Caspar Bowden, director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, documented the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIP), whereby personal data can be retrieved from PCs at the say-so of a 'regulatory agency', with no need for authorisation from the home secretary. After a depressing list of investigatory incursions into personal privacy, it was left to John Fitzpatrick, director of the Kent Law Clinic, to provide a rousing finale. Quoting Georg Lukacs' point that 'freedom is an activity', he explored the essence of privacy and civil liberties in law and in principle. Even though there was an important distinction to be made between the two - whereby the refuge of privacy sometimes becomes an evasion of proper public engagement - he firmly defended the idea of privacy when posed against the incursion of the state into personal activities.

Speaking about the ability to do things free from intrusion, he concluded: 'The concept of privacy is vitally important so that people can learn - be more fulfilled, so that they can then step into the public arena.'

This was a conference like no other. A day of intelligent discussion from a range of very personable speakers in an interactive and hi-tech environment. One day, all conferences will be as interesting.

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