What has gone wrong with the internet revolution?
Martha Lane Fox talks to John Thornhill about dot.everyone and her mission to help restore the internet's early promise
Presented by Martha Lane Fox and John Thornhill. Produced by Fiona Symon
Hello, and welcome back to Tech Tonic, a podcast that looks at the way technology is changing our lives. I'm John Thornhill, innovation editor at the Financial Times in London. Last week, we talked to Mark Palatucci, co-founder of Anki, about the consumer robot revolution. This week, we talk to a pioneer of online commerce about what has gone wrong with the internet, and why the high hopes that it could be an empowering and democratising force have not quite materialised.
We found an Uber user, a woman, who said that she had been punched in the face by an Uber driver, but still decided she wanted to use Uber every week, because the price was just so great. And you know, that, for me, is a sort of metaphor for the whole tech sector right now. How do you unpack that? How do you make sure people still do have the products and services they want and should have, and yet aren't constantly being punched in the face by them?
That's the voice of Martha Lane Fox. She came into the studio recently to talk to me about her work to try to ensure that the internet is a force for good in our societies.
You are involved in an astonishing range of activities. You are chancellor of the Open University, you're founder of an internet think tank, Doteveryone, a board member of Twitter, a peer in the House of Lords, and the co-founder of a karaoke bar company. And that's not everything. How on earth do you split your time?
It sounds a lot more daunting than it actually is. You know, I very much believe that if you want to do things, and they engender interest and curiosity, and you feel like you can have an impact, you can find time for them. So I try and focus on the things where I feel I can make even a tiny difference, and at the minute, that is really trying to make sure Doteveryone, think tank you mentioned, has a voice and is making some contributions to the debate about how we move technology on. And then secondarily, obviously, there are directors and chancellorships that I'm very lucky to have, that you focus on when you need to focus on. But they're not daily jobs, as you know.
Right. Now, I'd like to take you back, first off, to lastminute.com--
I remember that, just about. Whirring back.
--which was in, I guess, the kind of internet dawn, as it were, certainly in this country. And we all had the impression that the internet was going to be this wonderful kind of liberating revolutionary force. People focused on all of the good that it could do, as indeed it has done. But the mood has changed very much against tech in the last year or so. And we're now worried about cybercrime, mass distraction, fake news, the end of privacy. What do you think has gone wrong with the revolution?
I'm not sure if it's one thing that's gone wrong. I think if I try and whir back through the cogs in my brain to the dawn of time of the internet, as you put it, the excitement was palpable, because it felt as though this technology was such an empowering technology, that people perhaps who hadn't had access to information before were now going to have access to it. People who wouldn't maybe have been able to start a business before were going to be able to start a business in their bedroom, you know, that there was going to be a redistributive and democratising force unleashed on the world. And I think part of where we feel like we look around now as citizens, as users, as consumers, is maybe some of those things haven't quite been true.
It's not all dark, though, as you say. And I certainly believe that there are points and moments in time where things get corrected, and this might well be one of those, and that we still have the opportunity to build a different kind of future from perhaps the one that we might feel like we're sleepwalking into.
Right. So tell us more about Doteveryone. What are you doing there? What are you focusing on?
Well, I gave the Dimbleby Lecture a couple of years ago, certainly one of the most terrifying and intimidating things you can be asked to do, 45 minutes of free television. And in it, I posited the notion that we need some new institutions to help us think about the internet age. And I suggested that Doteveryone might be one.
I actually moved my thinking on a bit since then, and I started it not trying to build a new institution. That felt a bit too old-fashioned and fusty. And actually, Doteveryone is a smaller think tank. We think that we can make the biggest impact by provoking debate, doing research, challenging a different point of view. So rather than just the dot-com point of view, the corporate internet point of view, looking at the everyone point of view, the human side of technology, making sure you put people at the heart of the debates and the argument.
And how do we do that? How do we put people at the centre of the debate?
Well, we are focusing on three different areas of work at the minute. The first is some really deep research looking at how people feel about technology and the relationships that we have with it, because you've just suggested that it's dark and people feel bleak. You know, it's not just that simple, as you know.
And there's nuance and complexity. Too often, we hear about how many hours people are spending on their mobile phone, as opposed to what people are really feeling about carrying around that mobile phone in their pockets. And so that's the first thing we're going to do, is try and really assess, in a helpful way, what people feel about technology. So do that research.
From that, then, I think you can start to help people build better products and services, or different products and services. You can inform policy. You can suggest new ideas.
And two areas that we're very interested in are firstly, how we can make sure that leaders in this country, particularly people in public office or running public sector organisations, can better understand the internet? We did some work with MPs last year, a small cohort of MPs, where we matched them with a digital mentor. And it was extremely successful, because sometimes you just need a safe space to ask every question from "How on earth does my BlackBerry work?" through to "How can I have a more meaningful relationship with my constituents using technology?" And I believe very much that if we help people who are making important decisions about our lives understand technology better, then more better decisions are likely to be made.
Where did the digital mentors come from?
We sourced them from all over the country. We actually had a vast number of applications, and it was a very careful process of selection, because that was quite crucial, to match the right person with the right MP. But it was a project that I think, by stealth, we could help lots of people across the private/public sector understand technology better. If you're running a school, if you're running a primary care trust, if you're running a clinical commissioning group, if you're any kind of elected official, these are complex issues. I find them hard to understand, and I'm working in them every single day. So if in some ways we can give those support networks to people, I think that could be very valuable.
So you're to blame for all MPs tweeting now.
No, I think MPs were tweeting long before we came on the scene. And you know, the irony is that some of the most intense usage of Twitter is from public and elected officials, because they find it very useful to get their messages out. So I know that that's one thing I would say-- just because you're tweeting, you don't necessarily understand technology, not the other way around, although they are linked, of course, says the board member of Twitter.
So that's the second kind of interesting area of work that we're thinking about. And then the other thing that we're looking at is, how can you find the tools or the trademarks or the stamps or the Kitemarks-- and it really is that broader range of stuff we're thinking about-- to help people navigate what might be termed responsible technology, both from the point of view of the technology sector, but also us as users or citizens? Because if you think back five, 10 years ago, people weren't really asking questions about where their T-shirts came from or where their bananas were bought. And sure, it might be lucky if you've got the money to make those choices. Doesn't mean that people don't still all care about knowing more about the products and services they're using.
But with technology, that's quite hard. You know, it's invisible. It's very difficult to know firstly, whether or not the workers in the company are paid well, through to, what are they doing with my data, through to, do they pay tax? So we're trying to do some prototyping around, what might a Kitemark, a trademark, look like that could be used across the sector, both voluntarily and maybe enforced, then, by governments, to show where responsible and moral technology lies?
And who are you working with?
We're working with a huge number of different organisations. We've got sponsorship to fund the organisation from the corporate sector and from private sector and from foundations, so a good mixed economy. And we've got partners that we're building products and services with, from tiny startups to people looking at these issues every day, you know, philosophers through to investment companies. We've just done some of that fair trade and technology work with a group of interested parties who we're hoping will be a sort of first cohort to help build the products and services.
And is it possible to do this on a national basis? Or kind of trademarks, do they have to be global now?
Well, I think we're a small UK charity, and I would love for us to then one day have a global reach. But I think you have to start by showing some traction in your local market and getting some movement on the issues that you care about. So hopefully one day, Doteveryone's ideas, principles, will be spread around the world. And we're talking to other countries about what they're up to and they're doing. But at the minute, you know, we're not quite two years old, so we need to focus and deliver some of the things that we care about.
In the Dimbleby Lecture that you referred to earlier, you pointed out that Britain has this fantastic opportunity to become a powerhouse in the digital economy. But you also pointed out that the reality is lagging quite a long way behind that perception. and that only one of the top 100 most-visited sites in the world was British, the BBC. How have we done in the past two years since you gave that lecture? And what needs to be done to boost this nascent powerhouse?
Well, it is really fascinating to me that when I think back to '97, '98, when Brent Hoberman, the guy who came up with the idea for lastminute.com, and my friend who asked me to go found it with him, we were beginning to build our business plan, people thought we were nuts. They really did. And it's easy to sort of sound glib about that now. But it was certainly not believed that people were going to put their credit card details into the internet. And some of my friends would walk away from me at parties because they thought I'd become the most weird, boring person in the world, trying to start an internet business.
You know, now, London is one of the top tech scenes in the world. We've had massive inward investment into the tech sector. 4.5 million people across the country work in technology. We've had 7 billion of inward investment just in the last year alone. So the digital economy, in some ways, is absolutely thriving and is unrecognisable compared to 20 years ago.
But I would argue that we're still very early on in that journey. The entire European tech sector, and this is something you read in the FT all the time, is only 7% that of the US, is 7%. You know, and for the effort and the impact that we've been trying to have through all of these initiatives around startups and growth, that's a very sobering number.
Now, I'm an optimist. I think it's still far better than it ever has been, and there are incredible things happening all over Europe. But being realistic, there are only going to be a handful of companies that will ever rival those big US so-called platform businesses. And I think it's also important that we try and carve out our distinction and our character in different ways, not just relying on those startups to build scale, which we need to do, but also thinking about, what are the other levers that we could use as a country?
You were referring there to Europe. Clearly one of the big issues affecting the British tech scene at the moment is the whole issue of Brexit. And I mean, the tech sector I think was overwhelmingly in favour of remain. How much of a problem is that going to be for Britain's place in the tech world?
Well, we managed to do, what, a whole 10 minutes without mentioning Brexit? So that's not bad, especially talking about technology. You know, I'm a passionate pro-remainer. I think it's devastating. I think the very deep irony that, to my mind, the people that voted for this, because of the difficult circumstances perhaps they faced, are going to be even more constricted post-Brexit, you know? This is unhappy situation for a country that doesn't need to be, to my mind, in this position.
The thing I find very interesting, if you look at the tech role in all of this, is firstly, you're absolutely right. You know, tech relies on movement of peoples between countries. It relies on collaboration, standards, all of the things that seem obvious, because connectivity is connectivity. Beyond that, you know, a huge amount of work's gone on recently in the digital single market, being able to sell goods and services easily into other countries.
And I think these are all extremely important and valuable. But what I would say, slightly tempering that, is that it struck me as very interesting how very quickly the tech sector, because it's good at this, created a big powerful lobbying force, came up with five things that the tech sector needs post-Brexit, which, you know, some of those things I've talked about being protected.
I actually think that's the wrong question. And I suggested that rather than asking what your country can do for you, what about what you can do for your country? And it felt to me interesting that when you map people who have good digital skills and good infrastructure with people who voted for Brexit, there is pretty much an exact map.
Now, I use the word "map" carefully, because it is looking geographically on a map-- so typically, and a slight generalisation. I'm sure the FT readers will comment and correct me. You know, rural poor and rural areas, and urban poor voted predominantly more for Brexit. And they are people who either don't have access to the internet, or cannot afford it, or don't have skills.
And of course, I'm not saying there's a direct causation. But what I do believe very deeply is if we're going to make the country feel more joined up and make the most, to use our prime minister's language, of Brexit, then we need to think about how to connect people. And I think the tech sector has a huge role to play in that.
So we need digital inclusion as an element of the broader social inclusion.
But beyond just inclusion, I think we need to think about how-- and this goes back to how the UK can lead and how it can put digital society alongside digital economy. We need to dramatically improve the quality of services we deliver to a huge number of citizens in this country, not just government services, although a lot. You know, a number of charities that do sterling work in hideous situations don't also have the experience of digital that I've had in my background, and are therefore not able to deliver the quality of services that people might find if they were able to use the technology in the ways that some of us have had the luxury of being able to learn. So to me, it's a huge systems approach. It's not one thing. And all of this, to me, plays into what kind of country we want the UK to be post-Brexit.
Could you give me some examples of the trademarks, or the Kitemarks, that you want to apply to encourage this responsible technology that you're talking about?
Yeah, this responsible technology is slightly separate to the, I guess, the sort of government services delivered to the most vulnerable groups. But the notion that we've coming up with at the minute-- and we are literally just in our prototyping phase, is this is weeks of work, not even months of work-- is thinking about, OK, what kinds of visual cues might you need as a user to have some comfort about what a website is offering or not offering? We've done quite a lot of work looking at what people care about and what might give them confidence.
And you know, it's complicated, because a lot of people are using technology for convenience and price, and actually don't really care about some of the issues that you might think they care about. We did some research and we found an Uber user, a woman, who said that she'd been punched in the face by an Uber driver, but still decided she wanted to use Uber every week, because the price was just so great. And you know, that, to me, is a sort of metaphor for the whole tech sector right now. How do you unpack that? How do you make sure people still do have the products and services they want and should have, and yet aren't constantly being punched in the face by them?
One of the issues that you focus on at Doteveryone, and I know you mentioned in your Dimbleby Lecture as well, was the whole issue of gender imbalance in the tech sector. And you pointed out that only 14% of tech workers are women, compared to 24% in the House of Lords, which is hardly seen as a bastion of kind of progressive thinking.
Yeah, it was somewhat surprising when we did that numbers. I mean, obviously, a relatively small percentage of absolute numbers. But still, the percentages are shocking.
So how do we go about redressing the balance?
Again, it's extremely surprising to me, if you look over the 20-year view, that since we started lastminute.com, that this has happened, because this is an industry that didn't even exist 30 years ago. And to have so quickly replicated the same old hierarchies is monumentally dispiriting for someone like me who, again, does still believe in the empowering nature of this technology and the levelling nature of it, if you get it right.
And I think to understand how to improve it, you have to look at why it's happened. And it's a huge number of different reasons, partly because of the just brutal facts of the engineering culture, and despite the original "computers," in quotation marks, who were literally women, who were the women doing the computation or bits of processing when the automation happened in the 1950s and '60s. Computing then became dominated by men through the '80s, particularly in software development then became particular culture.
And from such a small number of universities spawning a small number of companies that were-- you know, the parody is true. It was two guys in their back bedroom, or garage, or whatever the hell it was. Then they were recruiting people that look like them, probably on their course from Stanford or Berkeley or whatever it was. And then very quickly, shoosh, those cultures grow. And it's harder for people to break through or even notice that that's happened.
And I feel as though every single point in the lifecycle needs to be examined. You know, we have to look at the cues we give to girls in school, because it's not just about coding and learning to code and engineering, although that is important. Look at me. I studied ancient and modern history, and I went into technology. It's about the cues you give to people to make them think that there are options and opportunities for them in surprising places.
And I feel like I was lucky because I was given this belief that ideas and curiosity and new ideas and innovation and entrepreneurism were exciting, not necessarily to do with coding or technology, and happened to find myself in the tech sector, and the tech sector is exciting for all of those reasons. So we need to show those examples and make sure we encourage girls as much as boys at school. But school is going to take 18 years if we start now, so we've got to also think about all these other things we can do.
Got to look at recruitment practises. We did some work at Doteveryone just rewriting job specs. Very often, if you're writing a technical job spec, even if it's not the person required to actually do the coding, if it's a user interface person or somebody doing some of the other project management bits, you use very complicated, technical language, as opposed to saying what the actual job is going to get done. And we found that women respond more to the problem-solving piece, like, OK, what is the result of my job going to be? So that's another area.
Then you got to look at retention, and those, you know, play straight into all the challenging things we know about women being at work, whether it's through to childcare, future family flexibility, through to different ways of appraising women at work because of all the things we know about the way people assess their own abilities. So you know, every single bit of the chain needs to change. And then you've got to look at where funding comes from, and venture capital community, and how they're investing.
So I wish I could sit here and say this is the silver bullet. I can't. But I do know that every organisation needs to look back in on itself and examine every single point in its chain.
So you think this is really a huge cultural challenge? I mean, I find it interesting because there are some countries like China, for example, where there's a far healthier balance between male and female workers in the tech sector.
Absolutely right. And Singapore is often cited as an example. You know, very, very small, obviously, but again, very gender balanced. And I would say it's because of the complete cultural neutrality around some of these issues.
So yes, I do think it is a cultural issue predominantly. And I think that's as true sort of macro as it is micro. This is as true at the corporate level as it is true at the national level.
And what damage is being done by this gender imbalance? In your speech, you talked about, as an estimate, 98% of all code that is used on internet and web technologies is written by men.
I think I said 96%, because if you look at the average number of software engineers that are women in organisations and kind of extrapolate out. And you know, this matters to me for three reasons. It's very simple.
Firstly, because that's where the power and the influence and the money lie within pretty much all organisations I can cite. You know, if you are any company now, you're wrestling with-- I hate this expression, but digital transformation. You know, the people who are building the future of how your organisation is going to look like are very often engineers.
And if they're all men, then they have all the power. They are earning more money than women, and that pay gap is going to increase even more, and that matters for all the obvious reasons. But also, the power structures within organisations are, again, going back to power structures that I thought we'd come some way in redressing.
So that's the first thing. The second thing is because the products and services will be less good. And that's just known. You know, I found a stat yesterday that said that venture capitalists with daughters are more successful venture capitalists. And I was thinking about that.
And again, it's another way of describing the same phenomena as I described in my lecture, which is that the Apple HealthKit, when it first came on the market, was this amazingly efficient way of judging all your metabolic rate, what steps you've done in a day, all of that stuff, had absolutely nothing to do with any women's health issue when it was first released. Nothing to do with menstruation, nothing to do with the menopause, nothing to do with babies, nothing.
And why was that? Because there was not one single woman on the development team. So Apple had basically reduced itself to producing a product that it had touted as the all-singing, all-dancing medical brilliance without taking into account 50% of the population. That's just dumb. And they had to quickly make sure that that was amended.
And the venture capital example is sort of the same thing, I think, because I believe that perhaps venture capitalists with daughters do better because perhaps they're more attuned to the kinds of products and services that girls and boys are using, and so therefore maybe making broader investment decisions, so therefore might be making better investment decisions. So from every angle, this really matters, because women are consumers and users as well as members of the workforce.
And my final reason is because it's just morally wrong that we are excluding women in the same way as they have been excluded in the industrialised age for so long, because particularly as we move into another-- you know, the so-called machine age of the future, I believe that there is a real danger that there will be deep biases, not actually in the way I just described, as encoded into them because the coders are male, but because the coders of the machines are male, and the machines are then making the decisions, and the biases become even deeper. So it's a slightly more kind of existential thought, but it doesn't just matter because of now. It also matters for the future and for the future we're very rapidly heading towards.
Now, you're talking about some of the kind of broader moral and ethical issues concerning tech, like algorithmic bias. What are the other things that we ought to be worrying about on which you're focusing on at Doteveryone?
A couple of things. I think firstly, the transparent or opaque nature of websites I think is enormously important to people. And this is obviously most keenly felt when you think about what your data is being used for, but also what those privacy settings around you may or may not be. You know, Even just it feels as though two or three years ago, people weren't quite as attuned to the fact that they are the product of a lot of the internet. And I think that being able to show people where they are able to take control of their data-- you know, lots of people don't know even that they can take their data out of a lot of these sites, that they have a legal requirement to give you your data. That's an interesting and very important piece of work. So we're teasing some of those issues out.
And then secondarily, we're looking at not necessarily the online online bit, but the more offline bit, which is the cultural and the workforce aspects of what some of these companies are like. You know, Matthew Taylor did some interesting work, as you are well aware, on the workforce of the future. And part of that was looking at some of these so-called sharing economy bits and pieces.
And I think that us as users, again, want to know that companies are treating their workers right. I mean, look at-- again, don't want to get into the detail of the Uber decision recently where part of that does spring from, I think, people's slight anxiety that because you can't see these companies in the same way you can in the traditional world, that there are things going on that we want to understand more about.
Right. As I mentioned earlier, you're a board member of Twitter. When is it ever going to make serious money?
Oh, soon. There is a plan, of course. Twitter is an extraordinary phenomenon, and I am constantly amazed by its power in the world. And I think, as has been well-documented by the board previous to my joining last year, the extreme rapid growth of this platform, and the enormous reach that it has, was all-consuming. And now the business model has got to follow that. And that is what the team are entirely focused on-- building new ad revenue products, making sure that we serve our advertisers well, thinking about what the future might look like for commercial revenue in the company. So I have no doubt that there's a viable business in there, because this is an important service in the world.
And doubling the length of tweets.
And doubling the length of tweets. I personally don't feel like this is such an enormous shift as perhaps some of the commentary has done, and certainly the team feel it's absolutely the right decision. It's still short. And it's still about the moment and what's happening now, which is absolutely at the core. And it's irrefutably the source you go to if you want to know what's happening right now.
But it's also being dragged into this whole debate about fake news. What more can the social media companies do to eliminate this scourge?
I think as all companies have said-- and I slightly call you on the way you describe social media companies, because they do have such different characteristics. Makes me laugh when people talk about companies like Facebook. Well, name one other company like Facebook. There is Facebook, and that is a whole phenomenon. And that is, to me, a completely different category of phenomenon to something like Snap, or something like Instagram. But again, owned by Facebook.
Twitter, I think, stands in a slightly separate category. It's part social media, but it is part news. It is part information, as you say.
And we, like everyone, are wrestling with the very, very rapid rise of these smart bits of technology that have been putting misinformation in there. You know, we have an information quality team that look at this stuff all the time. And you'll be well aware that we've recently been doing a lot of work on how to make sure that our technology can flush this stuff out as quickly as possible.
But it's hard, you know? And I think it must be easy, if you will, from the outside, thinking, but surely these smart tech people can just make this better! And there are some very smart tech people who are trying to make this much better. But we are talking about very cutting-edge bits of work, and it will take some time to work through.
And I also think no one company's responsibility. You know, this has to work, again, in tandem with all of us learning about how to test authenticity, how to know about context, how to look at sources. You know, it's just as important to me that we as parents teach our children that you can't necessarily just take as read something that you see on the internet, as it is that Twitter steps up and does its job, which it is, and will continue to do.
Right. Final question-- you are a co-founder of a karaoke bar. So I've really got to know, what is your song?
I didn't expect we were going to sing, John. This is very exciting. Yes, Lucky Voice is a slightly surprising bit of my backstory, but I always was struck in Asia by how people had this phenomenon of going out and singing in a room with their friends, and thought, with my friend, it would be a great thing to start here in the UK, which it has been fun in doing. We've also now opened in Dubai, to give it a plug, if you're in Dubai.
How many bars do you have?
We have eight in the UK and now one in Dubai, so that's exciting. My song, well, you know, because of the accident that I suffered in 2004, I used to say it's I'm Still Standing, because I am literally just standing. I haven't moved on from that. The song I'm better at singing is Love Cats, because it's so flat that you cannot really sing it badly, which is obviously a high danger when I'm singing. How about you?
Well, I think we've probably run out of time.
I can't be the only one to want to answer this question. What would be your karaoke song?
I'm afraid we've run out of time. Thank you so much, Martha, for joining us today.
We'll be back next week with another episode of Tech Tonic. In the meantime, if you'd like to comment on today's show or suggest any topics you'd like us to cover in future episodes, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don't forget to subscribe to our show on your favourite podcast app. And if you write a review, that will help other people find us too. Thanks for listening. This episode of Tech Tonic was produced by Fiona Simon.