Looking Back & Looking Forward
A decade is not so very long when you’ve survived seven or eight of them.
Every decade gets easier to understand: the experiences of each are rigorous training for the next. Memories, however, may fade. Stuff learned long ago may not spring so readily to the aged mind.
But now, halfway through my 8th decade, the study potential is enriched by the lack of digital decay. I may not precisely recall writing all those words but there, in some small corner of the Internet, they survive exactly as they were writ. So what can we learn from the decade done?
According to my old archaic system, the January 2008 article reached 6,850 on-line folk as well as the much larger readership of the trade magazine NetworkingPlus. Back in 2008, I was writing for the UK’s Communications Management Association. That CMA (not to be confused with today’s Competition and Markets Authority) did not survive the decade. The causes for which its members fought linger on and are still not fully resolved but they are now championed by a greater multitude across almost every aspect of society.
Looking back at ‘Islands of Fibre’ the headline notion was right — we do now have a few islands of superb connectivity. We do not yet have the envisaged wholesale retreat from copper but there is much wider awareness of the economic, environmental and social damage of clinging to the old wires of telephony. Pretending that those wires are optical fibres is a misrepresentation bordering on consumer fraud, but that, I’m sure, will soon be outlawed. Calculating the full cost of the decades of delay will be a research task for future students. So much of their learning will be exploration of the messes we leave behind.
My 2008 thoughts on competition and regulation, however, proved over-optimistic. The notion of Service versus Infrastructure competition (why build it twice?) has not panned out and only now is the nonsense of duplicate investment being considered. And that consideration, sadly, is only in the minds of centralised national regulators — a long way from the 2008 anticipation of a more-locally devolved approach to resource management and investment.
So do the lessons from the past caution against optimism? Should we now resign ourselves to yet another decade of over-centralised policy? Do we settle for the drift of ‘muddling through’?
The start of any year is surely a time to look forward — with enthusiasm, if not confidence.
Although there is still much connectivity catching-up to be done, my attention has moved way beyond the fight for fibre. Several parts of the country now have local fibre initiatives up and running, gathering speed and outpacing the tired wired pretenders. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the old providers now complaining of insufficient demand to justify their shoddy halfway houses.
No, the focus now more clearly shifts to the extraordinary advantages of those well-connected islands — free at last to shape their world to suit local needs. Local communities may begin to realise what all that fuss was really about. The focus for the next decade can be on Connected Communities enabled and empowered for the first time to thrive in ways previously constrained by the commanding centralists. It’s a sparky prospect that lies ahead.
But this year, the sparks are not so very obvious. Silver linings are not evident around the thunderclouds of Brexit.
Taking a longer view, ‘the centre cannot hold’. All around are signs of resurgence in localism. The signs may not yet be fully recognised. The much-discredited Top Downers of Whitehall may choose to ignore these indicators. The signals may be rubbished by the right-wing media every bit as much as by the earnest comrades to the left. The old ideological battles of the Right and Left (Privateering Pirates versus Collective Controllers) have become increasing irrelevant.
The strength of local leaderships, the awareness and cohesiveness of local communities, and new compacts on local needs, may take time to recover from decades of dereliction. But the most likely Brexit aftermath (regardless of any decision) will be a further decline in respect of central authority.
Writing now in 2019 (and having moved beyond infrastructure angst) the priority issues I see for the next decade are far more fundamental than debates about digital dithering. The wider priorities must reflect the huge diversity of local community needs. In this we’ll be aided by three realisations — one technological, another political and the third a small matter of socio/eco/environmental education.
Firstly the technologists will deliver a new compact, AI at the edge– distributed systems to sensitively rebalance the rights of individuals and communities whilst retaining the clout of cloud computing . . . a far less artificial intelligence. Secondly, subsidiarity will, at last, begin to be understood (even in England) as a core principle of governance — and we should look forward to a massive global revision — a wholesale re-education — led by young people attuned to different wavelengths and marching under their banner of 21st Century Economists. Their well-founded leadership competence will be rooted in exposure of the failures and delusions of environmental and economic ignorance. By the end of the coming decade, in the same way that the CMA of 2008 outlived its purpose, the old GB brand will have become an historical footnote.
A decade is not so long when you’ve lived through eight or nine of them — and, with luck, I’ll be back again in 2029 to check on your progress.