The Levellers

Virtual Consumer column from Ethical Consumer magazine Mar-Apr 2010

I’ve recently heard it argued that whatever the short-term impact of ‘disruptive technologies’, in the long run they have a levelling, democratic effect. Sometimes this is a straightforward result of what the technology does, although it may appear at first to be having the opposite effect. The invention of printing concentrated power in the hands of those who could afford to run a press, leading to the creation of powerful newspaper barons. In the long run however it made mass literacy and education possible, without which you cannot have any meaningful form of democracy. With other disruptive technologies the democratising effect was more of an unforeseen and unintended consequence. Industrialisation helped concentrate wealth and power in the hands of the factory owners but it also brought workers together in the factories where it became easier for them to organise themselves into trade unions and improve their wages and conditions..

Like printing, the internet has given people access to information they didn’t have before. However, there is more than one disruptive technology at work. Because it is still really in its infancy, it is too early to say what the long term effect of search engine technology will be on knowledge and expertise. It has already had a profoundly disruptive effect on commerce: search means that for a product or service to succeed on the net it needs to be the cheapest or the best.

Another disruptor has been the advent of broadband. There is a lazy assumption that broadband changed the internet because it was faster. But just as importantly a broadband connection is ‘always on’, unlike the dial-up access that came before. This has led to the explosion in new ‘web 2.0’ services like Wikipedia, Youtube and Facebook, all of which are built on ‘user generated content’. Printing brought us the idea of a mass readership. Broadband has brought us mass ‘writership’. Like other disruptive technologies, broadband has been disruptive in quite unforeseen ways, making possible the filesharing explosion that has become a serious threat for the music and film businesses.

Now a new disruptive technology is about to change it all again - so-called ‘next generation’ broadband. Over the next few years the copper wires that still provide the main connections in homes and places of work will be replaced with optical fibre. This can easily increase download speeds ten-fold and soon a hundred fold and more. Again though it won’t just be higher download speeds that make an impact. First generation broadband services are ‘asymmetric’ - information flows much more quickly to users than from users on the assumption that they are consumers rather than producers of content. Next generation networks on the other hand reduce or even eliminate the difference between ‘up’ and ‘down’ speeds. Just as no one foresaw Wikipedia or Youtube, so there will undoubtedly be many new services invented as a result of these changes.

Perhaps though the first sign that this new disruptive technology will have a levelling, democratic effect are in the problems it is causing for the big telecommunications companies. Being shareholder-driven businesses, they are reluctant to invest the large sums required because the pay back is slow. In countries like Sweden and France governments and local authorities have been stepping in to make the investment instead - so that new networks are partly or even wholly publicly owned. In the Netherlands and the USA communities have formed cooperatives to build and operate the networks. With recent announcements in the UK by Manchester, York and other city authorities, the same cracks are appearing here. Not only will this new technology change the balance between media owners and consumers, it may also result in some control and ownership of this vital ‘information utility’ ending up in the hands of the people who use it.