Are the Chips Down for the Internet?

Why did the chicken cross the Web? To get to the other Site. Well, the Internet may not have improved the quality of my jokes, but there is no doubt the Web has had a huge impact on our lives.

The World Wide Web was invented 25 years ago. It is difficult to imagine how we coped back in 1989. There was no Google, Facebook or Twitter. How life has changed. 2.4 billion people use the web worldwide, including 1.2 billion shoppers online. Radio took 38 years to aquire 50 million users and TV took 13 years. The internet needed only 4 years, whilst Facebook blitzed there in 10 months! So communication is clearly faster. But has the Web made our lives better?

For some, yes. For example, crowdfunding platforms have launched many projects which would have failed to get finance otherwise. Kickstarter alone has helped over 55,000 ventures. £4.6 billion has been earned by people in the UK using the “Gift economy”, to share products and services. The Airbnb web based business has done this successfully in property, whilst Zopa has focused more on financial services. The Web has become the ultimate matchmaker for all our needs.  It has revolutionised the way we buy and sell, learn and teach, discuss, meet, greet and even marry.

Africa has the fastest growing number of web users. I was invited to speak in Nigeria for the first time in December.  As I boarded the plane at Heathrow, it was a bitterly cold day. It was literally a baptism of fire as I stepped into the oven like heat of Lagos 7 hours later. But apart from the temperature, what struck me after I spoke to thousands at the National Stadium, was the  Nigerian entrepreneurial spirit. 47% of Nigerians access the web via smart phones. Perhaps it is the web that will do more to close the gap between the first and third world economies than anything else. Educational opportunities are being extended on a global scale, through massive open online courses, from Khan Academy’s tutorials which reach 10 million students per month to Coursera which offers over 100 courses.

All industries are being transformed, through the Web. I recently spoke at an event hosted by an educational charity that works in Ghana, West Africa.

Ghanaian farmers now use their smartphones to trade their products before their long trek to market starts. This saves them time and earns them more income.  South African women from the slums of Soweto are now being trained to help American customers with their computer problems.

The UK leads the world in many areas of IT. Products and services delivered on line now account for at least 10% of UK GDP, the highest percentage of the G20 countries. The British are the busiest online shoppers in the world. By 2014 e-commerce will be about 20% of total UK retail.  UK web activity is larger than the education, health or construction sectors.  Britain has created some world leading businesses online, like Asos, the fashion company.  London is now a Technology hub, but Bristol, Brighton and Edinburgh are also seeing record numbers of digital start-ups. In the global internet business, the UK has the advantage of location and language.

But we must not become complacent. There are real challenges ahead. Only 30% of UK small businesses do transactions on line, excluding them from larger sales and savings. 1 million technology sector jobs need to be filled by 2020. That looks a tall order since 11 million UK adults are still not on line.  The number of women in the UK technology sector is falling. On present trends only 1% of the sector will be female by 2040.

There is a real problem which needs to be addressed in retail. In the UK more than 3 million people work in this sector. But the number of employees required for each £1,000 worth of products sold online, against the numbers required for traditional retailing is a ratio of 1:3. So any increase in online retailing will inevitably cause significant falls in employment. In 2013 Blockbuster, HMV and Jessops all ended due to their inability to adjust to the changing online world.

Innovation has always driven advances in our standard of living. Buying goods and services online is usually the cheaper option. Through the Web, households will spend less on groceries, utilities, and clothing. But what will happen to those who lose their jobs, as more goods and services are provided online? The answer maybe that people should develop skills that complement rather than compete with computers and the digital world. So I would suggest, as  Government policy,  more investment in sectors dealing with infrastructure, education and research.

We also have to ask whether our political, public and corporate leaders have the required skills and understanding of the digital sector. I do not believe they have. This results in a lack of wise policies and choices about our future, in which technology will be at the heart. It is worrying that only 4 FTSE 100 companies have a Chief Technology Officer or digital expert on their plc board, despite the internet revolution their businesses face. None of our political leaders have a science or technology background. Yes, they have advisers, but traditionally the Civil Service is not from a tech savvy background.  There are policy issues which  Governments have barely started to think about, such as the privacy implications of wearable technology and the regulation of driverless cars. This will be no longer science fiction, but science fact, sooner than we think. There are serious problems such as cyber crime and cyber bullying, which political leaders do recognise as issues, but seeing is not the same as solving.

The way we access the Web will change. As more infrastructure gets connected to internet technology, it will no longer just be linked to computers. Today the web has 575 million host computers, but it is forecast that billions of sensors will become connected to buildings, bridges, fridges, and freezers. The amount of data or information we can access will increase exponentially. Not only will the web spread to more countries, it will support more languages. The fact is that most of the history of the web is still ahead of us, so we need to address these issues now. When Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web 25 years ago, he had in mind universal access and inclusion for all. But presently only 25% of the world’s population use the web, so education and access remain just some of the challenges of the internet. It was Sir Walter Scott in a poem in 1808 who first wrote about “a tangled web”. Walt was right.