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10 December 2019

Where is the vision for our digital future?

Martin Moore

MARTIN MOORE: All the main manifestos have a nostalgic, analogue, feel to them


The Policy Institute is producing a series of comment pieces analysing election manifesto pledges from the different parties across a range of policy areas. Read the full series  here.  


Of all the 2019 election manifesto commitments by each of the various parties, only one seemed to break through the morass of Brexit rhetoric and partisan vitriol to excite the general public – Labour’s promise to build fibre broadband for all. Putting to one side the practicalities of its construction, and the economic arguments about free access, this commitment distinguished itself by providing a shared vision of a more prosperous and connected national future. Beyond this, the digital transformation and its implications for society, the economy and our political system, was strangely absent from most of the manifestos.

The absence of a vision for our digital future from the Conservative manifesto is consistent with the absence of any major commitments in the party’s manifesto, with the exception of Brexit itself. The first mention of the internet and digital technology comes 20 pages into the 64-page document, after lots of portraits of Boris Johnson and vows to “get Brexit done” and “take back control”. Here the Conservatives commit to “legislate to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online” – a continuation of Theresa May’s problematic Online Harms White Paper. 20 pages later the party alludes briefly to investment in “world-class computing and health data systems” before moving briskly onto freeing farmers from the “bureaucratic Common Agricultural Policy”. After that, beyond a vague aspiration of rolling out “gigabit broadband across the country”, nothing. Zilch. It is as if the digital transformation, and the opportunities and dangers that go with it, was not happening.

The Labour manifesto, by contrast, has no lack of big, and big-spending, commitments. Indeed the £579 million-per-year promise to maintain “free full-fibre broadband to all” is one of its thriftier pledges. Yet beyond this infrastructural promise, and reference to a “Charter of Digital Rights” (details not spelt out), it too is peculiarly free of “that vision thing” when it comes to digital. There is nothing about addressing Shoshana Zuboff’s “surveillance capitalism” model that characterises the political economy online, or attacking the “Platform Capitalism” that Nick Srnicek describes in his 2016 book, or about countering algorithmic discrimination which is starting to affect everything from our job prospects to our prospective partner. Nor are there radical proposals on the role of big data in our economy, or on how to challenge the growing dominance of US technology giants in society, or aspirations towards creating a “data commons”. In other words, there is nothing in this Labour manifesto to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn wants to follow in Harold Wilson’s footsteps and forge a new Britain in the “white heat” of technology, or sketch out a radical vision of our digital future.

The Liberal Democrats do the most to embrace digital developments and to thread the digital revolution into their other commitments. The party acknowledges the need to rethink the future of work in the coming era of artificial intelligence. It recognises the ethical risks posed by the use of personal data and proposes an “Ada Lovelace Code of Ethics”. It even – unlike either the Conservative or Labour manifesto – refers to algorithms and their increasing use in making automated decisions that shape our lives. Their most startling proposal, and one that has gone almost entirely unremarked in coverage of the campaign, is their promise to “develop a mechanism to allow the public to share in the profits made by tech companies in the use of their data”. This echoes computer scientist Jaron Lanier’s controversial idea in Who Owns the Future? and suggests a move towards personal data ownership and marketisation that would take the economy and society in a fundamentally new direction.

With the exception of the Liberal Democrats, all the main manifestos have a nostalgic, analogue, feel to them. Neither Facebook nor Google merit a mention anywhere in the Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem or Brexit Party documents.

Martin Moore

At least the Brexit Party does not even try to portray its slim, large-type pledges as a manifesto. It is, rather, a “Contract with the People”, signed by Nigel Farage and Richard Tice. As one might expect, its focus is on freeing Britain from the clutches of the European Union, though it is also remarkably free of any mention of the internet or digital developments. For the Green Party, our digital transformation is, perhaps understandably, subsidiary to its overriding goal of a Green New Deal. Though it does at least acknowledge the need to reform our political system in the light of digital developments.

With the exception of the Liberal Democrats, all the main manifestos have a nostalgic, analogue, feel to them. Neither Facebook nor Google merit a mention anywhere in the Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem or Brexit Party documents. There are no visions of smart cities, no innovative proposals for platform cooperatives or data trusts, no plans to protect citizens from constant surveillance, and few ideas for revamping our social media-soaked, data-damaged democracies. The emphasis on Keynesian-type infrastructural investments, and references to a “New Deal” gives the parties’ promises an almost 1930s feel. We shall just have to hope that our politics does not mirror those of the 1930s in other ways too.

Dr Martin Moore is a Senior Lecturer in Political Communication Education and the Director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power at King's College London.

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