The future is not something we travel to; it's something we build. All of us. But at their party conferences, and in the coming election campaign, our politicians will be trying to orchestrate that future, and getting it horribly, dangerously wrong.
The digital revolution that is sweeping the world is actually a communications revolution which is transforming society. When used by people and communities who understand it, digital technology allows information to be transmitted and transmuted in fundamentally limitless ways. This ability is the basis of economic success around the world.
But it offers more than that. It offers the priceless intangibles of friendship, community and understanding. It offers a new democracy dominated neither by the vested interests of political parties nor the mob's baying howl. It can narrow the gap that separates capital from labour; it can deepen the bonds between the people and the planet. These truths are being embraced, regardless of political prattling, by a new, global generation. Any agenda for the future must understand and incorporate these new truths. In that spirit, here's ours.
Technology = CultureToday's leaders scorn the possibility of a golden age in which economies are based on limitless ideas, not limited materials. They refuse to see that abundance, not scarcity, drives the future, and that widespread connection can replace widespread alienation.
Culture = Technology
But the ruling classes will not release their grasp on the present to reach for the future. They reflexively prefer the big and controllable over the small and self-organising. They want a world of nations and governments, not of sovereign communities choosing their own limits. They pretend that democracy is best served by eliminating voices that might shock, offend, or threaten. They encourage us to think the worst of ourselves, with endless moral panics and dishonest nostalgia. They treat us like idiots while campaigning for office, pay lip-service to our wisdom over the ballot box and then ignore us in the conviction that they know what is best.
We reject such leadership categorically and absolutely. The leaders of the digital society must convince us of what is right, not simply forbid what might be wrong. They must understand that technology is not just a means of producing things, but also a means of creating culture - and a cultural creation in itself, for which we all share responsibility. They must know that, in a world of rapid change, optimism is essential for survival. They must allow us to build a new civic society in which the technological possibility for everyone to speak, to connect, becomes the basis of all political action. We will not find that leadership in today's politicians. This leadership is something we must find within ourselves, and we now have the tools to do this. We must learn how to use them.
Open a free market for thoughtDigital technology turns censorship on its head. The traditional approach of trying to silence potentially offensive speech is not only morally suspect, it is also virtually impossible. Politicians in Britain and around Europe - in the French parliament, in the German Landtag - want to do it anyway, regulating what can be said on the Net, and how it can be said, in the same way that they regulate television. This is as wrong as it is pointless.
The capacity of digital networks to carry information is all but unlimited. "Bad" messages do not displace "good" ones. There is no real common-good basis for stopping communications, as there might be for broadcasts over the limited spectrum allocated to television. So there is no good reason to limit the ability to talk. The important thing is to allow people to control what they listen to. Make sure that individuals and communities have ways and means by which to choose their own standards for what is, or is not, too offensive for general consumption. Technology already enables them to filter out potentially offensive messages without imposing these standards on others, and this technology is growing ever more sophisticated. The governments now trying to hold Internet service providers (ISPs) liable for the ideas and images their networks carry would do better to protect them, and go after real paedophiles, terrorists and other wrongdoers. Governments should also encourage communities - which may include some ISPs who elect to add the role of community builder to that of communicator - to use their ability to filter out what their constituents do not wish to hear.
The basic principle remains: those who wish to speak should always be as free to do so as everyone else is to ignore them. The digital society is a place of abundance, not of limitations; of choice, not diktat.
Demand your dataTechnology will make personal information the greatest civil-liberty issue of the next century. We generate information just by being alive; we can no more stop doing so than we can stop breathing. People can easily, publicly pick up that information. Once the information is out there, technology allows it to be easily stored, cross-referenced, communicated, duplicated. That is inescapable; the question is what to do about it.
Protect your privacy
If someone has information about you, demand to see it. If there are cameras on your street, demand to look through them. No CCTV system of the sort that British politicians dote on so should be in use unless the people it watches have some way to access its imagery, both directly, through nearby screens, and indirectly. That's what public space is all about: a place where one can see - and be seen.
Such public knowledge does not justify new discriminations. Neither knowing that someone is black, nor knowing he or she is HIV positive, is an acceptable basis for discrimination. The fact that one of these observations is now usually public, and the other usually private, is meaningless.
There will always be secrets. Governments cling to their fantasy that outlawing encryption will remove others' ability to encode things in hard ciphers. But it won't. Any reasonably intelligent terrorist or criminal will use encryption and hide the fact, whether or not this is legal. To outlaw encryption for the honest while leaving it in the hands of the miscreants flouts every law of natural justice. The level of secrecy in communications will, for the first time ever, be a matter of individual choice.
Transparency is the first duty of governmentFreedom of information - in the town hall in Whitehall in Edinburgh, Brussels and Westminster and even in the vehicle licensing centre in Swansea - is not an optional extra. Government is a mechanism for knowing, and all of us should be able to use that machinery. At a minimum, transparency means using technology to provide access to tax services, job advice, welfare payments, local council information, parliamentary proceedings, environmental monitoring, accounts of members' interests, school performance and all the other information and services that government provides.
But simply putting them online is only a beginning. Technology can, and should, make them truly open. Everyone should have the ability not just automatically to file a tax return, but also to track its progress through the tax system, to see who is working on it when - and why. Freedom of information in government is also freedom of inquiry for its citizens.
New technology requires new politicsWiring our government processes is only a first step. An online nation is only as good as its citizens make it. Our challenge is to return the public sector to the public.
Privatisation has been used to get the government out of many areas where it wasn't needed. Now we need to engage in "publicisation": putting private individuals back into the process of government as interested, active citizens setting their own agendas and reacting to the needs of the people around them.
A civil service ruled by its own ethos, a political class more concerned with election than representation, a government that operates behind the mask of official secrecy: none of these will be acceptable in an era that takes information and participation as universal facts of life.
We must create a new type of democracy. Not an indefinite digital plebiscite on every issue; representation still has a role to play. But why should political parties monopolise the right to represent? Redefining democracy means smashing the cartel of representation they have established and choosing our own voices, as individuals and as groups.
Redefine the publicRedefining democracy also means being prepared to work. On average, three months or more of our lives each year already are spent working for the government. Wouldn't it feel better if that work was being done for something you felt that you could contribute yourself to - something that needed your voice and talents, not just your tax money?
Technology transforms bureaucracies into ad-hocracies of genuine interest. Instead of bureaucracy's fixed roles and hard rules, technology's power to inform enables improvised organisations to gather the skills and to assume the shape best suited to the job at hand. The Internet is the first achievement of this self-organisation. Networks are springing up across the world: cable companies, corporate intranets, wireless networks, satellite networks, fibre-optic cables that run along railroad tracks and through sewers. The Internet is simply the global mosaic created by connecting all of these networks.
Politicians say they want to build - and take credit for building - the "information superhighway". But it's already in place. It's called the telephone network - and, given the right encouragement, its basic transmission capacity can be used to communicate any digital message, which really means any message at all.
Expand your sphere of influenceWe must ensure that local networks can interconnect - that big telecoms companies do not limit access to their infrastructure in order to keep a grip on markets they believe are theirs by birthright. Then, local networks will keep on growing, keep on stringing themselves together. The whole will grow as the sum of the parts, but ever greater. The Internet is only a first example of a public good built by the public; many more will follow.
The Net makes the world our sphere of influence. Acting locally, we can wire our own schools - and then we can link them to others wherever we choose. We can keep an eye on each others' houses, both down the street and, soon, around the world. We can tell broadcasters what we want or become global broadcasters ourselves, rather than relying on some bureaucrat's views of public service. It all adds up - and it will evolve into something larger.
Organise!Politicians think that people who don't bother to vote will not shoulder other burdens of state. But not voting is the politicians' failure, not ours - a sign of alienation, not apathy. The 19th century bequeathed the statistical state - seemingly impervious to influence in its scale and abstraction. The 21st-century state we are building will be the accessible state - personal, anecdotal and open to the individual.
Through technology we can acquire the knowledge, and the freedom, to act. Government cannot stop this. It can hinder - or it can help, and cause alienation to wither. The future belongs to those who build it. Let's start building it now.