Tech Entrepreneur Martha Lane-Fox Warns Digital Divide Forcing Families To Choose Between Data Or Food
Lane-Fox warns some families are having to choose between food and data
Tech entrepreneur and former UK digital champion Baroness Lane-Fox says the country must work harder than ever to tackle its deepening digital divide as we emerge from the pandemic.
The pandemic has fundamentally changed how society interacts with technology. Ordering food and clothing, educating children, getting medical advice, and even finding love are all increasingly becoming activities done online. For tech-entrepreneur and crossbench peer Baroness Lane-Fox, the change is a double-edged sword, giving greater opportunities for those with the skills to engage in the digital space, while entrenching inequality for those left behind.
As a co-founder of dotcom success story Lastminute.com, Lane-Fox broke the mould by becoming one of a handful of female businesspeople in the sector in the 90s and early 2000s before throwing that same zeal into her work around digital inclusion in 2009. Having been recognised by then-prime minister David Cameron for her work, she was handed the role of “digital inclusion champion”, where she forged ahead on promoting the agenda across government.
By 2013, she was ennobled by Cameron as a crossbench peer at the age of just 40 – making her the youngest female peer in the House. Having given her maiden speech on the topic of digital literacy, it is a cause she has continued to champion.
“We were forced to rethink how to do everything, from working to living our personal lives, which forced a migration to online activity,” she says of the pandemic. “For many people, it broke through an inertia institutionally and made people have to think about how to reinvent what they were doing using technology.”
She says while the change was a “breakthrough” for some small businesses in how they interact with consumers, others were “profoundly” challenged as they lacked the necessary digital skills or understanding. “It really did show the depth of the inequalities in our digital landscape.”
While the digital divide has been a growing concern among policymakers since the invention of the internet, the necessary shift to an increasingly online world during Covid highlighted and deepened inequalities that already existed across society.
Alongside her own work on wider digital inclusion, Lane-Fox also led an overhaul of the government digital service – a project which became a gold standard across the globe for how governments could increase transparency and access with the public. It is a combination of skills that have made her acutely aware of the benefits of technology, and the risks to those without the ability to engage.
“At an individual level we still have millions of adults that don’t have the skills or the connections, or the resources, to be able to do the things that we take for granted,” she says.
“We have heard from people in our communities who are making a decision about whether to buy food or buy data. Just imagine how profoundly upsetting that choice is if you’re trying to home-school kids using online technology, and also deciding whether to feed them.
“These are unimaginable things in one of the richest countries in the world. We very urgently need to close that gap at an individual level. There are lots of groups doing this, but it needs resourcing, and it needs will from the government.”
As part of that work, Lane-Fox has now been put in charge of leading a House of Lords review into the long-term impacts of the UK’s post-Covid future, including looking at the changes in how people and policymakers interact with the digital world. It comes after the pandemic compelled the Lords’ own rapid metamorphosis from archaic debating chamber to a high-tech space using online voting and debates conducted by Zoom. But while Lane-Fox was impressed with the advances, she is concerned that the decision to return so quickly to the old ways of working demonstrates a lack of ambition across government.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” she says. “The teams in Parliament were incredible, enabling online voting, hybrid chambers, but things have gone back pretty quickly to how they were before, and my anxiety is that we don’t double down on the things that we found helpful.
“We are thinking about how to solve a very deep digital divide that still exists that’s been shown up through the last year. My fear is that we don’t capitalise on this moment.
“It’s why we need to keep a really razor-sharp focus on both the individual level and organisational level on what people need to be happy, functioning members of society. It’s not just about division by age, it’s division often by wealth as well and we’ve seen through these last 18 months that there are huge digital divides in this country.”
While Prime Minister Boris Johnson champions the UK’s opportunity to become a digital powerhouse in the world, Lane-Fox says that ambition can only fully be realised if it comes alongside efforts to build digital inclusion into all aspects of policy making.
“Technological change is faster than it’s ever been. The day today will be the slowest day we’re going to live. For the rest of our lives it’s going to be speeding up and speeding up,” she says.
“This can’t be owned by one department, it has to be owned by the Prime Minister, because it affects every aspect of how we live our lives. Even the notion of digital strategy is a bit arcane.
“This is infrastructure, this is skills, this is every bit of our economy, but you need to make sure it is embedded in across the board. That’s the first bit but it’s not just government; local councils, local community groups, local activity is very important as well. Closing the digital divide is as essential as any central government activity right now.”
She adds: “I would argue that we are missing momentum from central government and from the Prime Minister. We’ve got this ambition to be an incredible AI-powered economy, the best place to start a digital business in the world. But the other side is about building a robust digital society.”
That push to realise the benefits of the online world has come alongside a growing debate around the toxic nature of social media abuse and harassment. Having joined the board of Twitter in 2016, Lane-Fox says the explosive growth in popularity of social media firms has left the regulatory system trying to play catch up.
“I am confident that is changing. I think there is much more recognition than ever before that there’s a huge gap... between the world that people are living in, and then the policy world that is trying to catch up with it.
“This is a pivotal moment where we are seeing that kind of reckoning, we’ll get some legislation, some bits will be good, some bits will be bad, like all legislation.
“If you take a long view, I have confidence that this will work through, but we are at a junction because there’s a gap between skills and the task at hand.”
Part of ensuring legislation is done correctly, she claims, is working to ensure the right people with the right skills are embedded in both business and government. But as one of the first major female tech-entrepreneurs in the UK, she warns there is still a huge chasm in terms of representation at the highest levels of the digital economy.
“There are definitely more conversations than I can ever remember about how to include all genders, all ethnicities or economic backgrounds. That is fantastic, but when you look at where the money is and the actual power, not much has changed,” she says.
“Just look at the one metric around venture capital funding. Only nine per cent of venture capitalists are women, and only two per cent of venture capital funding goes to women. It’s got to be 10 to 20 times that to get to an equitable state.
“I’m thrilled there are more conversations, and things like all-male panels are [now] unacceptable. Those are important symbols, but you have to keep an eye on the data and the actual power in the industry, because that is the only way we can take action and make change.”
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.