Martha Lane Fox talks to Emily Speers Mears

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Martha Lane Fox founded when the internet was just a gleam in most entrepreneurs’ eyes. In 2009 she was appointed the UK’s Digital Champion, with the aim of getting 9 million people who have never used the internet online. Tank’s Emily Speers Mears met her to discuss the Race Online 2012 over cupcakes in her office in Soho.

Emily Speers Mears What stage do you think the internet is at in its development?
Martha Lane Fox Near the end. I only say that because I think our consciousness around going onto something that is “the internet” is nearly dead. Kids now, they don’t have a perception between the offline and the online, it doesn’t mean anything.

ESM So it’s not really dead, it’s sort of absorbed.
MLF Exactly. Dead is just a provocative way of describing it. It’s so embedded in everything, every device, every transaction, every piece of information. I don’t think it’ll be long before we have a chip in us. And I don’t mean that in a weird, spooky way. I’d absolutely love to have a chip in me for business cards – I hate business cards. So I think that the internet as a kind of conscious thing that you go onto is very near the end of its life. But in terms of the technology that the internet sits on and the layers that sit on top of it, we haven’t even started yet.

ESM That applies to a great extent in Britain, and you’re making it an even greater extent in terms of getting everyone online. But have you looked outside of Britain?
MLF Absolutely. Internationally, the countries that do really well in terms of the internet are Nordic countries and, more surprisingly, the Baltic countries. I just met the prime minister of Estonia, which is often called the “geek nation”, and they have about 98 or 99 per cent usage of their online government services – it’s massive, everyone’s online. I asked him how that happened in Estonia and he said, “Easy, the government just designed the best services.”

What’s been so interesting in some of the African countries such as Rwanda and Kenya, and Nigeria a bit, is that they have really leapfrogged from fixed telecoms into mobile telecoms. It’ll be interesting to see whether it’s still an elite minority that actually gets to use those technologies, or whether they will be able to re-engineer their societies around the internet.

ESM I’ve just come back from Burma and where internet cafes exist, the two types of people you find in them are children playing computer games and young adults using Facebook. So in terms of increased usage, is there a pattern to how you end up using the internet once you’re connected?
MLF I think technology maps human behaviours. And rather than dampening what I believe is good about human beings, I think they just allow more and better, actually. I think the internet allows you to get into society on your own terms, in an interesting way. And then to stay engaged with that society, in an interesting way. There are 1.7 million people over 65 who don’t see anybody in a month. No one. Of course it’s not ideal if the only interaction they have is via a computer, but it sure as hell is better than nothing.

ESM I don’t know whether the best question is what you do online or what you don’t.
MLF What I actually do online is save a lot of time and effort to allow more rich offline experiences. So I do all my shopping online because I’m not very good at going round shops with a stick. I clearly communicate via the internet all the time, but actually what it enables me to do more than ever is to have the time to sit down with a book. So I do lots of things online, but most of the time it’s to free up the real time.

ESM Who do you think understands the internet?
MLF Back in 1997, when we started, you could kind of understand the technology. But it’s not even the beginnings of possible now. I think you can have sector-specific knowledge, but someone who says they understand the internet, I’d say beware. Big red warning. I think it would be a misplaced and slightly pompous thing to claim.

ESM What about who helps us to understand what we do online – for example, web designers?
MLF I think I went off web designers through the process of designing Not to say that web designers aren’t brilliant, but I like the unknown, probably unqualified, probably 13-year-old kid somewhere in a bedroom who is designing stuff and changing the world.

ESM What kind of responses do you get from Race Online meetings? You seem to have one every day…
MLF The good thing about this agenda is that it makes sense for everyone, so it’s not like we’re pushing against a brick wall. We can make a case around customers and individual and UK plc benefits, so we’re getting good responses from the majority of people.

ESM Have you had any responses that have made you change the way you think about what you’re doing?
MLF All the time. Meeting some of the people who have done things in other countries, for example, Latvians and Estonians who design government services. They have thrown some curveballs. Some of the things I’ve enjoyed most recently have been around older markets. I believe there’s a kind of disproportionate benefit to being online when you’re older, for the reasons that we talked about.

ESM And you were in Mecca Bingo halls the other day.
MLF Yes, which was brilliant! I loved it. One of our pushes right from the beginning has been to get to pubs, get to bingo halls, get to post offices, get to libraries, get to all the places where our communities who aren’t online are. Mecca Bingo fits perfectly. So it was really good and it was fun. I always love watching people get online for the first time. I do it a lot, and you always learn something.

ESM How do you explain the internet to someone for the first time? Do you have some standard lines?
MLF You have to start from the things someone’s interested in. Don’t even bother explaining about the mouse or the computer, that’s stage two. You need to start by asking what they love. My dad’s a good example. I managed to get him excited when I showed him that his pupils in Oxford had set up a Facebook page in homage to him, and he’s so vain he loved it.

I was trying to get this old lady online live for the first time on Radio 2. She told me she liked craftwork, so I said, “Type ‘craftwork’ in the box in the middle of the page.” I couldn’t see what she was doing, and she couldn’t see me. She was in her house and I was on the radio. And her voice as she could see the results tumbling in was completely amazing – she had no idea that you could see all of that information there. It was such a joy, sharing that with her for the first time.

Also, we haven’t talked very much about the future. I think the opportunity for us to reengineer our country around the internet and deliver much better quality of care services, information, health, to many more people… I’m not utopian about it but I find it very exciting.

ESM I heard of a project in Paris banlieues where they put everyone online and crime rates dropped.
MLF There’s a place in Bristol called Knowle West, which was a very deprived area. Somebody built a multimedia centre there, and the by-products have been all the things that you would hope for. One of the biggest projects was a stealth gardening project where older people taught younger people how to plant vegetables, and young people taught older people how to record the journey of planning the vegetables using digital technology. And now they’re selling produce to their communities. There are lots of other examples.

ESM We haven’t mentioned the negative side of the internet – for example, online bullying…
MLF I’m with Professor Tania Byron on this. She was asked to do some reports on kids and technology for the previous government. I think everyone thought she was going to say, “You’re right, this is bad,” but she said, “Bring it on – just bring it on with care.” There are lots of things you can do to your computer to lock it, parental controls you can put on it, and then I think it’s just by example. You don’t want your kids on the computer 19 hours a day just like you don’t want them in front of the TV; it’s no different. So you as a parent have that responsibility to make sure your kid’s a good kid. §

  • Martha Lane Fox