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Friday, 8 November, 2002, 13:40 GMT
Life lessons for web users
Happy people, BBC/Corbis
Will the net make our lives happier?

The internet is not over and done with despite the demise of many dot.coms and collapsing confidence in technology firms and net businesses.

So said many speakers at a major conference in London that debated the net's effect on society and how best to shape this powerful force for change.

Speakers said that the net has potential to do much more than make businesses more efficient and let people download cheap music.

Others warned that leaving net policies in the hands of self-interested and blinkered minorities could cause grave social problems for decades to come.

Dumb technology

The Beyond the Backlash conference was organised by four UK think-tanks and attempted to restart debate about what the net was doing to society and how it could be harnessed to improve lives.

Do not, I beg you, be bad ancestors

John Perry Barlow, Electronic Frontier Foundation
The think-tanks collaborating were Demos, The Institute of Public Policy Research, Forum for the Future and The Work Foundation.

Early hype about the net was driven by venture capitalists and the financial markets, but many of the conference's speakers were convinced that the net's greatest influence would be on personal lives not profits.

"Technologies do not matter in and of themselves," said Charles Leadbeater, author and senior research associate at Demos, "they matter when they unite with other services to extend them and give them new life."

Few at the conference had any doubt that the net was already changing users' lives in small ways by making it easier for interest groups and communities to communicate and by making information easier to reach.

"These technologies are very potent," said Mr Leadbeater, "and their most successful applications occur when united with social organisations."

"But how that will happen is a very open and undecided question," he said.

The drive to develop

Often compelling evidence of the ultimate effects of these changes are hard to isolate, even when technology is specifically used to drive development.

David Woolnough, an advisor on technology to the Department for International Development, compared the use of the net now to help developing nations to the shipping of tractors to the same countries in the 1950s.

Putting CD in computer, Eyewire
US laws could curtail basic freedoms
"It is blatantly obvious that single technology-driven solutions do not work in the developing world," he said.

But if conference delegates were undecided about the ultimate impact of net-based technologies no matter where they are used in the world, there was unanimity on the dangers of getting it wrong.

John Naughton, professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University, said there was a pressing need to nurture public discussion spaces online and to keep them free of the usual vested interests that can hobble debate.

Big decision

His comments were echoed by John Perry Barlow, founder of US cyber-liberties watchdog the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who feared that badly drafted laws would severely curtail the freewheeling spirit of online discussion.

"I thought we would be spared the governments impositions by its incompetence," he said, "but we cannot trust to that anymore."

Child looking at camera, BBC
Today's choices could have unforeseen effects
Instead, he said, the US Government and corporations were pushing a unified agenda that stressed control, censorship and the removal of basic rights over freedom of discussion and action.

Challenges to the corporate and federal axis were limited because, so far, net activists and protesters were not fighting on a united front.

"What we have now is 10 million lonely pamphleteers crying out on lonely street corners and not getting together as a block or getting together as opposition to traditional institutions," said Mr Barlow.

He said there were profound dangers in letting the government and business-backed view of what can be done online prevail because the net was at a pivotal moment in its development.

"If we design it to serve existing models of business and government and to follow short-term goals we will be bad ancestors," he said. "Do not, I beg you, be bad ancestors."

See also:

01 Oct 02 | Technology
04 Oct 02 | Technology
26 Jul 02 | Entertainment
11 Sep 02 | Entertainment
18 Mar 02 | dot life
02 Oct 02 | Technology
21 Mar 02 | Science/Nature
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