It’s a good start to a week when the first e-mail in my inbox is from Barack Obama. Despite his current atrociously low ratings and all the criticism levelled against him I still feel a tingle of excitement when I read his messages. All right, yes, I know I am only one of 20m or so supporters who receive personalised communications – but the way his team puts technology at the heart of its organisation is still unparalleled over here. On holiday recently I read The Audacity to Win by David Plouffe, Obama’s chief campaign manager during the 2008 presidential election, and was struck by how he compares that race to an enormously ambitious internet start-up – the continual money-raising, relentless brand-building and audience engagement using the most cutting-edge technology. I could certainly see some similarities with my own experiences on lastminute.com more than a decade ago but the sheer scale of the story dwarfed even the most upbeat of our late 1990s dotcom mania business plans. Ten years on from 9/11, it is still striking that, to quote Plouffe, “We managed to secure a man of mixed race descent with a middle name of Hussein the presidency of the most powerful country on earth.”
I have also just finished reading about another American president – and his wife. Hazel Rowley’s Franklin and Eleanor tells the story of the Roosevelts’ extraordinary marriage. How incredible that the scale of his polio was hidden for so much of his campaign – something that would be impossible in this era of constant scrutiny and constant broadcast. However, I think Eleanor would have embraced today’s new technologies with gusto – she would have been able to have a voice of her own and to highlight the causes she cared about. Quite a rebel at heart, I am sure she would have liked the ability to disrupt the status quo.
It may be fanciful but I like to think that Eleanor would have been interested in Race Online 2012, the campaign I started in 2009 to ensure that everyone in the UK has the opportunity to discover the wonders of the internet. She was certainly deeply concerned about social exclusion and so I am sure she would have attacked this form of it with characteristic vigour. Indeed, having set the challenge to the UK to be 100 per cent connected by the time the Olympics starts next summer, I need her inspiration to keep on at this difficult ambition.
Race Online 2012 has to work through partners as we have no funds for activity of our own. We need to influence the influencers – hard at any time but especially in this tough economic climate. So earlier this month I headed to Birmingham to address the National Housing Federation Conference. Half of all those who are offline live in social housing and this conference brings together the main organisations, which together house more than 9m people. I reread the statistics on the train journey there and they were sobering. Forty-four per cent live on a household income of less than 10k a year. And yet our work so far shows that if just 3.5 per cent of those people found work by getting online (we know people are 25 per cent more likely to find work if they use the web) it would contribute more than £200m to the economy. I hoped my speech would show that both businesses and residents would benefit greatly from internet access. The crowd of 1,200 seemed very responsive. Still I held my breath as the chair asked for a show of hands from people who were going to help me, then felt quite overwhelmed when the entire audience did so. The race goes on.
A lot of technology news has hit the main headlines recently so there was plenty to catch up on when I met my fellow board members at mydeco, the online interior decorating business set up in 2007 by Brent Hoberman, with whom I co-founded lastminute.com. Nicole Vanderbilt, the chief executive, and I were in agreement about the indignity suffered by Carol Bartz of Yahoo! who was fired over the phone after many years’ service. Brent and I reminisced about how we had been so excited to secure a deal to put the lastminute logo on the home page of Yahoo!’s UK site in 1998. No Facebook or Twitter back then and hardly even a hint of Google – the landscape changes quickly.
There was also plenty of talk about 3D printers. I have been fortunate enough to see several in action, most recently at the amazing Ravensbourne College for digital media in Greenwich, south-east London. They allow the user to print out objects – for example, architects to print models – but I have also seen ideas for how they could be used much more radically to change the manufacturing process. It is not too fantastical to imagine being able to design and print out your own dress. Though, for my part, I think I will hold off buying one until I can at least print out my own 3D President Obama.