Information and Communication Technology (IT) has become a significant item on the political agenda over recent years. There is a general perception that there is some sort of “information revolution” going on, but there is still a great deal of uncertainty about what this will mean and what the correct public policy response should be.
In seeking to form a response to the challenges posed by IT, we should avoid becoming bogged down in looking at the technology itself. It is helpful to think of IT as just a tool – in the same way that we might consider the printing press as being just a tool. That is a tool which fundamentally changed the way we think and work and led to entirely new social and political structures. The detail of the tool itself can be interesting to specialists but is of little significance compared with the wider changes it may provoke.
We should also understand that this change is not simply a result of the development and spread of personal computers and the Internet but exists in a wider context. The development of IT has been taking place over many years and consists of a range of major technologies such as radio, television and telephony, which have had a huge influence on people over the last century. What is different about the current phase of technological evolution is that it is designed for two-way communication. This shift from the broadcasting of information to passive recipients to interactive communication between active parties is of major significance in terms of social and economic change.
The general trend towards “globalisation” is also a key component of the IT policy mix. One of the most significant features of IT in all its forms is that it is no respecter of geographical borders. Newer forms like the Internet are geared towards a global market. And the market for older forms, such as television and telephony, has been developing into one where transnational corporations source and market products globally over a number of local output channels.
This paper sets out a Liberal Democrat response to this information revolution. It is an issue of serious interest to those who hold liberal views more generally. Like the changes brought about by major technological advances in the past there are a number of possible outcomes as IT increases its influence over our daily lives. The technology itself may be seen as essentially neutral, but there is scope for huge variation in the ways in which people apply it.
Some of these outcomes could be fundamentally illiberal if knowledge and power are jealously guarded by small groups or if the technology is used to exert control over people. There is reason to fear such outcomes as we have seen these patterns in the past, such as where feudal systems held sway after the move to settled agriculture or with the appalling conditions for workers which have often followed industrialisation.
We are generally hopeful that IT will instead create conditions for a more liberal world. We celebrate the way in which it can bring people together, overcoming traditional boundaries. We see that it has potential to allow the less well off to take part in global trade on a fair basis. We look to technology to improve the delivery of public services. And we can envisage a future in which both the breadth and depth of democratic participation are enhanced as governments open up to input from their citizens.
The paper deals with three elements of the mix that have to be got right if we are truly to benefit from the information revolution. These are the transition to an information society, support for our domestic IT industry and the use of IT in public services. We have made a number of proposals in each of these areas.