Women should be at the “heart of the technology sector”, according to Martha Lane Fox (pictured), who has revealed her Dot Everyone idea during a Richard Dimbleby Lecture.
Lane Fox used the lecture to air her idea of creating a national institution to make Britain “the most digital nation on the planet”, and urged the nation to sign an online petition demanding that the next prime minister gets started on building the institution, named Dot Everyone.
Lane Fox laid out the three aims of the institution during the broadcasted lecture on BBC One. The first aim is that the institution should educate everyone, from all backgrounds, about the internet.
Secondly, Dot Everyone must put women at the heart of technology due to the fact that“currently there are fewer women in the digital sector than there are in parliament”.
Thirdly, the institution should focus on the moral and ethical issues the internet presents, such as whether children need online rights and what is an acceptable use of drones.
According to Lane Fox, Dot Everyone would be an independent organisation with power given to it by the government, while the public would have strong direction over what it does.
Understanding the internet
She stressed that all levels of society need to be informed and educated about the internet to allow everyone to reap the benefits, and sugggested this should start with the government.
“They should be symbols of this ambition. And right now they’re letting us down because they don’t understand the internet,” said Lane Fox.
“We need more politicians and senior civil servants who realise that ‘getting’ digital means more than operating a twitter account or taking an iPad to meetings.”
“In a digital world, it is perfectly possible to have good public services, keep investing in frontline staff and spend a lot less money,” she said. “Saving money from the cold world of paper and administration, and investing more in the warm hands of doctors, nurses and teachers.
“There is a huge opportunity here to do public services differently. What we need is politicians and leaders who can escape the old assumptions.
“Why, then, are our politicians are not talking to us about this? Because they don’t understand it well enough. Their lack of knowledge breeds fear, especially of three dreaded words in a headline: Government. IT. Failure.”
However, Lane Fox noted that it is not just politicians who are lacking in digital skills, but also the business leaders in the boardrooms. In addition, she mentioned the 10 million adults in the UK who are digitally excluded.
“They are heavily skewed to the lowest socioeconomic groups. 50% are over the age of 65, but 50% are of working age, in a country where 90% of new jobs require digital skills and many vacancies are advertised only online,” she said.
“Teach us all about the internet. Get us all up to speed. And make sure no one is left behind.”
Women at the heart of tech
Lane Fox said Dot Everyone aims to educate on how the internet works, but it also plans to put women at the forefront of the movement, because she is concerned none of the big internet businesses relied on by the public were founded or are run by a woman.
“If you take a look at the tech sector as a whole, 14% are women. That’s a noticeably lower percentage than the 24% I find in the House of Lords. So much for the old fashioned world of parliament versus the shiny modernity of the internet,” she said.
According to Lane Fox, fewer than 10% of investors in the tech sector are female, meaning some of the biggest internet companies used every day do not reflect the diversity of their users.
“Let’s create an awesome new cohort of female coders, creators, designers – women to take on any and every digital role” – Martha Lane Fox
“This is especially disappointing because women have been so important in the development and creation of internet and computing technologies,” she said.
“They under-represent every group of the population that’s not male, white and able-bodied. I don’t know exactly how it happened but the absence of women is having a profound impact on the services we use every day.”
Lane Fox set the goal of making the UK “the best place to be a female technologist in the world”.
“Let’s create an awesome new cohort of female coders, creators, designers – women to take on any and every digital role,” she said.
Lane Fox also drew on personal experience with a story about the time she pitched for funding for Lastminute.com with her co-founder Brent Hoberman. She said at the end of the pitch she was asked what happens if she gets pregnant.
“We were trying to raise money to create something truly new powered by the internet. This was the first and only question from the first and only investor who had agreed to meet us,” said Lane Fox.
“What was so surprising to me was not only the inappropriate nature of the question, but also the total lack of interest that this grey-haired man, sitting behind his antique desk, was showing in the face of the internet revolution.
“Didn’t he realise this wasn’t just about booking holidays but about way more – shopping, information, politics, entertainment, health, education. Couldn’t he see beyond his prejudices about a 25-year-old woman to glimpse the inspiring, brave new world ahead?”
Moral and ethical issues
The third task of Dot Everyone, according to Lane Fox, would be to “embed our national values in the digital world”.
“It will make sure the UK fills the moral and ethical gap that exists at the heart of discussions about the internet,” she said.
Some of the issues Lane Fox shed light on were the implications of wearable technology, internet embedded in devices in the home, how to protect against cyber crime, and how to make sure smart cities are projects for the public good not just private profit.
She argued that it’s unfair that the big commercial technology platforms are the dominant voices in these debates currently, because there is a lack of understanding elsewhere: “Google and Facebook are writing the answers because our institutions and legislators can’t cope and don’t have enough expertise.”
Britain’s creativity and entrepreneurialism
Lane Fox said the problems that Dot Everyone aims to address are a consequence of lacking digital imagination in the boardrooms.
She said: “There are only four digital executives on FTSE 100 boards. But I’m willing to wager at least 80% of board discussion and decisions have a digital element.
“This country is rightly proud of its creativity, its inventiveness and entrepreneurialism. But among the top 100 visited websites in the world, there’s only one from the UK.”
This one site is the public institution BBC, which appears at number 74. Lane Fox pointed out that Pornhub sits at number 73.
“We’re going too slow, being too incremental. We need to be bolder,” she said. “A new institution could be the catalyst we need to shape the world we want to live in and Britain’s role in that world.”