When IT Meets Politics

Page 1 of 10012345...102030...Last »

June 13, 2016  3:49 PM

Is there really a Digital Skills Crisis?

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Apprenticeship, apprenticeships, BIS, Digital skills, European Commission, Pitcom, Trailblazer

This morning the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee released its report on the “Digital Skills Crisis”  This afternoon the House of Lords debated the government response  to its “Make or Break” report last year . Last week the European Commission published a proposal for a Skills Guarantee . Meanwhile BIS is ploughing ahead with byzantine routines for a return to the type of training grant and levy scheme that was  scrapped (for good reason) in 1980s.  Unfortunately though dead, the idea of grants and levies, job creation schemes for bureaucrats, will not stay buried. In 1992 I helped kill an attempt to revive it with a Bow Group Paper on the theme of “Training for jobs not just jobs for trainers”.  The processes proposed by BIS to fund “approved “training organisations to deliver apprenticeships which meet criteria dictated by officials not employers, make the average European “initiative” look like a model of efficiency.

I therefore applaud the recommendations by the Select Committee that

  • Government needs to work with closely with employers, higher education institutions and schools to understand the apprenticeship marketplace, to ensure that education aligns with industry’s requirements, and that apprenticeships are delivered in a flexible way to adjust to future changes in the digital sector”  (Para 54)
  • Government should emphasise the need for more digital skills components in all apprenticeships … ” (Para 55)
  • should review its Trailblazer initiative, making it more streamlined and accessible … simplifying the scheme’s processes” (Para 56) and
  • … make it easier for industry to partner with universities and colleges to support student teaching … work placements … allow the cost to be written off against the Apprenticeship Levy contributions” (Para 57)

I am less happy with the recommendation that  “The Government should review the qualifying requirements for the new IT roles added to the Tier 2 visa “shortage occupation list” , making it easier and more flexible for SMEs to recruit top talent from outside the EU” (Para 30).  The European Commission proposal for a “Skills Guarantee” to help adults stuck in low paid jobs is more forward looking but the Committee’s recommendation is perhaps inevitable,  given the 50 years of policy failure summarised in my evidence to the House of Lords report (see pages 1057 – 70) and referred to in my blog entry, describing the need to break out of groundhog day, when that report was first published.

The crisis is over. The patient is dead” .

We failed to use the past “crises” as a catalyst for change. Things came to a head during the run up to Y2K and the “false start” of the transition to mass-market, Internet-based on-line systems. My 2001 IT Skills Trends report was about surviving the bursting of the dotcom bubble and preparing for the skills that would be in shortest supply when recovery came – in 2005 – 6. But that recovery did not come. By 2006 demand and salaries for those jobs which could easily be moved off-shore had stagnated. Much of the software and support industry had come to be staffed by a mix of overseas systems development and imported contract labour. We were facing the consequences of our inability to retrain our existing workforce, let alone our failure to educate and train our children.  I stopped writing the reports. They had become too depressing and the only ones taking action were those who helped write them.

An Apprentice Levy without a credible, let alone efficient, Grant process

Today we have a curate’s egg  wth unemployed computer science graduates in parallel with unprecedented shortages of competent and trustworthy recruits for Fintech and Security roles and another exercise to dig up the dodo of levies and grants – this time with the grants ring-fenced to meet the costs of “approved providers”, officials trying to dictate the requirements that employers are allowed to have and different processes for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Last week I attended a briefing session for employers. Those serious about training their future employees with the skills they will need were already looking at how to bypass the system, writing off the levy as a payroll tax on those jobs they could not realistically subcontract or move out of the UK. It was, as the Commons Select Committee has pointed out, not only unfit for purpose when it comes to the needs of SMEs (Para 30), it looks unlikely to meet the evolving needs of those large firms who already train their own and/or those in their supply chains.

But markets do not stand still. The Commons Select Committee call for the annual “dynamic mapping” of initiatives against demand so as to create a long term mechanism for adjusting the strategy (Para 29) is therefore particularly welcome.

The recommendation that Government should commit “to work with the Tech Partnership to develop industry-led, vocationally focused careers advice …” (Para 43) is also most welcome, but this should be extended to cover school-leavers. We can no longer afford to peddle the immoral fantasy that the majority of our children will benefit from starting their working lives saddled with student debt after spending three years to become less employable than if they had been paid to do a graduate level apprenticeship. In 1982, in “Learning for Change” I attacked both

  • “the examination treadmill to which we chain our adolescent youth in a set of puberty rites crueler than those of primitive Africa, At least in Africa they do not label any of the participants as failures” and
  • our confusion of “education” with taxpayer subsidy for the middle class ritual of kicking the fledglings from the nest.

The many recommendations of the Select Committee with regard to computing schools in schools are worthy but the most important boring is  Paragraph 83 where it recommends working with the Tech Partnership “to raise the ambition for, and coverage of, industry led digital training, and to make it easier for business of all sizes to get involved“.

The need to “break open the educational ghettos” has been a key message since  1982, when PITCOM organised for relays of school-children (from 30 schools) to man an exhibition in the Upper Waiting Room of the House of Commons (26 computer systems, up to 14 running at any one time running off three power points, at a time when Parliament had no facilities for schools visits!). That exhibition was attended by 120 MPs: one returning six times to get a group doing Economics A Level to run variations on the Treasury Economic Model – hence my long-standing support for Donald Michie’s idea that MPs should be able to simulate the effect of the legislation, including amendments, which they are expected to approve.

That was over 30 years ago. It is therefore particularly sad that the same messages have to be repeated as though they are new. The reason is linked to the prevalence, evident in paragraphs 70 – 76, that teachers (whether in School, College, University or Industrial Training Centre) have to be expert in IT in order to educate their pupils/students.  If that is correct then there is no solution – other than to rely on those (in other parts of the world) who use their limited supply of skilled educators to supervise the delivery of blended learning (mix of packaged learning materials, personal contact and supervised work experience) by mixed teams of assistants and subject experts: which is what successful digital “informal learning” groups (para 70 – 77) as well as enlightened employers, have been doing since before school computing curricula or computer science degrees were invented.  Hence some of the recommendations in my own submission to the Select Committee


November 14, 2017  11:32 AM

The Taboo Debate: Unreformed Remain is no more serious an option than Clean Brexit

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo

The United Kingdom is a prisoner of geography. It is part of Europe. Unlike the rest of Europe it is, however, protected from invasion by a natural barrier, the English Channel. There is no natural barrier between Brussels and Moscow other than a few rivers. The imperative behind the “The European Project” is not just the prevention of another war between France and Germany which begins with an invasion of Belgium. It is to protect against another invading horde from the East: whether Mongol or Muslim. The Commission cannot allow “Clean Brexit” to succeed. It needs the only armed forces that kill in cold blood to remain within the Union – it is not “just” our money.

Nor is “Clean Brexit” in the interest of the UK. London has been a pan-EU trading centre and entrepot between the Continent and the “rest of the world” for over a millenium: transitioning over time from long ships and tally sticks to electronic freight forwarding and on-line trading. London is one of the few places in the world where one can do business in whatever language, under whatever law the parties wish. That position is under threat from attempts to create a protectionist hegemony under EU law. London’s economic prosperity is linked, however, to that of our EU partners. Hence the equivocal attitude of those in the City who wish to be able to continue to business under EU law, just as they do under US law or the various schools of Sharia. They want the EU to succeed, so that they can make money out of that success. But they also want the freedom to look outwards to the rest of the world.

At this point we need to unravel a few fantasies – such as how much, or perhaps how little, the economic success of our European trading partners depends on the “achievements” of the European Union. A cruel view of Brussels today is: several thousand lobbyists working to protect the interests of corporate clients and well-funded NGOs by negotiating meaningless harmonisation, sweetened by subsidies and exemptions to pay off politically powerful and well-organised protectionist interest groups (like French farmers, fishermen and lorry drivers). Apart from the customs union and those matters also covered by WTO “rules”, progress towards a genuine single market has been glacial.

To take a few IT-related examples:

  • Why can you not legitimately watch the BBC over iplayer in Brussels?
  • Why do pre-fabricated buildings ordered over the Internet cost so much more in Austria than in Germany?
  • Why can a British lorry driver not do a circular route UK -France – Belgium – Netherlands – Germany – UK, picking up and dropping short-order loads (from parcels to containers) en route?
  • Why is it so much harder to organise the the secure and seamless pan-EU tracking of components/parcels/vehicles along supply chains than it is between the UK and the US or China?

“Never, in the field of human endeavour, have so many worked to long and so expensively to achieve so little”: so many convoluted exercises to agree common processes which are ignored or bypassed by those who dominate global markets but condemn indigenous suppliers to playing catch up in their own domestic markers.

During the run up to the referendum I nailed my colours to the mast, saying why I would vote Remain.

I now know I was wrong.

Leaving does indeed appear to the only way to bring about the reforms necessary to make it worth remaining. Michel Barnier and Davis Davis are doing an excellent job, given that both have been given impossible terms of reference. Unless and until changed these will not prevent impasse before the UK stops paying more than the legal minimum and the Commission finances collapse. Hence the current attempts by Brussels and its allies to collapse the UK Government before that happens.  But we need the EU to be reformed, not weakened, let alone destroyed.

The “solution” is akin to that adopted by Alexander the Great in Phrygia, by then a decaying but still pretentious province of a crumbling Empire. Depending on who you believe, he pulled the linch pin from the yoke of the cart, thus enabling the Gordian knot to be unraveled from within.

We need to accept that agreement on a comprehensive package is impossible, let alone by March 2019 – whether or not we could agree financial terms. Without fundamental changes in negotiating positions which are impossible for either side to publicly agree, the talks will indeed collapse. We should, therefore allow them to do, while focusing, in parallel, on what we want the relationship after 2019 to be. That way may, paradoxically, be the best way of saving them.

But to do so, we need to go public on our “true” strategy, while allowing the actual talks to proceed in private.  In public we should also focus on the positive, not the “red lines”.

We should state:

  • which research programmes we are happy to continue funding (perhaps making unconditional funding commitments),
  • which new programmes we would like to see (e.g. active co-operation on developing the skills of the future with a pan-EU dimension to global programmes).
  • which freedoms of movement, reimbursement of health care costs, transfers of benefits etc. we are happy to agreed payment,
  • which WTO disputes processes we would like to see used on those areas within its purlieu where we disagree (probably not many),
  • how we would like to see mediation on those areas outside the remit of the WTO where we cannot reach agreement,
  • which overhead costs and other financial commitments we are happy to accept, subject to independent audit and disagreement should be handled,

and that we are happy to accept a series of longer term programmes to discuss (separately from the arbitration/mediation process) not only the areas of disagreement but also new opportunities for co-operation, with no artificial time constraint or prior commitment.

The prime aim is to enable relatively painless switch from an impossible process to one which can reach an interim agreement by 2019 on the 80 -90% that is uncontroversial while politely kicking the rest into the long grass – for attention over time. A subsidiary aim is  to focus the lobbyists efforts on what their clients want at the practical level and on working in co-operation to achieve this.

I know that idea of public negotiation is taboo (and all IT salesmen are trained to avoid a menu sales pitch lest the customer does a pick and mix) but one of the core complaints about the EU is its “democratic deficit”. Meanwhile the referendum result and that of the election earlier this year showed how little the British public outside London trusts the Westminster Village or shares the values of the Metrosexual (deliberate Freudian slip) Elite. We will not carry the British public, let alone public opinion in other parts of the EU, with “yet another stitch up behind closed doors”. Given the impact of social media, let alone supposed Russian cybermeddling, the leaks over time may soon build into the revolutionary flood of 2018 (c.f. 1848 and 1968) – as students across Europe (except the UK) blame (rightly or wrongly) the EU for their lack of worthwhile employment opportunities.

If they ally with the Farmers, Fishermen, Lorry and Taxi drivers and others whose earnings are being driven down by the current wave of immigrants, I doubt that the new embryonic European Army, let alone the Belgian Police, will be able to protect the Berlaymont from a rioting mob and the Parlement will have to retreat to its expensive funkhole, alias “official seat”, in Strasbourg.


November 12, 2017  11:39 AM

No “end of jobs”: debunking the cyclical AI/Robotics hype

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
ai, apprenticeships, Robotics

The first recorded prophecies of the “death of work” came in the later days of the Roman Empire where the spread of water wheels led to collapse in the price of slaves in Dalmatia. In the 16th Century clockwork automata (alias robots) were fashionable and about as useful as most of the domestic robots of today, albeit very much more expensive. As a student I enjoyed reading Thomas Love Peacock‘s comments on the similar arguments that accompanied the industrial revolution. Meanwhile his “day job” was at The East India Office, organising the telegraphic communications across India and back to London, helping transform the world beyond the most far fetched dreams and nightmares of  those he satirised.

In 1977 the BBC Horizon Programme “Now the Chips are Down” triggered a series of studies into the “death of work” that would follow the micro-electronics revolution. I represented my ASTMS on that organised by the TUC for the then Labour Government. I was introduced by the General Secretary at one event as “the acceptable face of the Tory Party, he pays the levy”. At the same time I was working, via what is now the Conservative Science and Technology Forum, on policy studies to handle the implications. “Cashing in on the Chips” (published in 1979) was one the best selling CPC pamphlets of all time and I spent nearly an hour on the Jimmy Young programme explaining that “In ten years time when North Sea oil peaks out, the price of energy in the UK will soar. In twenty years time our workforce will shrink as a result of the fall in the birth rate, while the number of senior citizens to be supported will continue to grow. The wealth creating potential of the Chip revolution is our best way out of the combination of crises that loom over Britain.

The key to realising that potential is to remove the fear of unemployment so that change is welcomed not resisted. This requires freedom of movement to enable the worker redundant in one job, trade or town to move without excessive tribulation to another. Government action is needed to: …

Some of the actions were implemented to time, such as “a microcomputer … in every secondary school in Britain by 1982” although the “appropriate teaching material to support staff” did not even begin to arrive until several years later and the budget of the “Micro-electronics support unit” was a fraction of the “ten times the hardware budget” I had specified in the support papers.

In 1982 I was asked to present to the UK technical press on the educational implications of the rise of AI and Artificial Intelligence and I recently put the original paper on “Learning for Change: training, retraining and life-long education  for multi-career lives” back on line – because the analysis and conclusions are once again apposite.

Then in 1984 the first page of “No End of Jobs” concluded with a stark warning: “If we do not make better use of technology to create more wealth and simultaneously release and equip manpower to take better care of the elderly, you and I will grow old and cold alone, in the dark.

We may have addressed the “problem” of a falling indigenous birthrate by opening the floodgates to immigration, but there is still no sign of our making serious progress in deploying the technologies available to help provide humane and efficient care for frail and elderly (about to include my contemporaries and myself) at affordable cost.

Meanwhile I look at the applications of AI and Robotics being hyped today.

In this area, as with most of the so-called “Smart City” and “Big Data” applications “Tomorrow came yesterday”. Many have already been done successfully using earlier generations of technology – albeit often by organisations with little or no reason to spend time or money telling others what they have done.  Many require large numbers of technicians to install and maintain and/or a robust and reliable digital communications infrastructure that we have not yet got. I composed this while my terrestrial broadband was down (fault at the Gypsy Hill exchange). The service has just come back after 16 hours. Were I in the rural area that might not be unusual but for a not very leafy London Suburb …  More-over the outage was “only” over Saturday night … but it reinforced my reluctance to trust business systems, let alone, my personal care to any services that rely on “always on” Internet connections.

Perhaps if we did not have such a chronic shortage of those with the technician level skills (hardware as well as software) to understand, develop, install and maintain AI and Robotics systems we would have less hype and more practical progress. I say technician level, because almost all are akin to those in the old BTEC/HNC qualifications. There is a particular need to include a good grounding in basic statistics and security by design, without which the computer scientists and electrical engineers of today are part of the problem – not the solution. We need to retrain, and perhaps certificate and register, most so-called “professionals” before they are employed in this area.

I get bored talking about professionalism but do make time to blog on the work currently under way to organise level 3 digital apprenticeships – with specialism from cyber and security by design, through AI, Robotics and Big Data to IOT applications. Meanwhile it is interesting to note that, according to a recent Sutton Trust Report leaving school at 16 to get a Level 3 apprenticeship is worth marginally more than staying on to do ‘A’ levels. Meanwhile a level 4 apprenticeship is worth the same as a non Russell Group degree and a level 5 is worth more. I am told, however, that it is harder to get onto some of the leading level 5 digital apprenticeship courses than into Oxbridge!


September 29, 2017  1:06 PM

Breaking Open the Graduate Digital Careers Ghetto – A guest blog

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo

On 19th September the Digital Policy Alliance 21CN Skills Group reviewed its draft paper “Addressing the skills needs of post Brexit Britain” and its own plans for helping bring about the changes needed. I also invited participants to contact me afterwards about the points they did not have time to make. Julia Von Klonowski (currently Director of Digital at the Career Colleges Trust and previously Director of Education at Oracle) got on her soap box and contributed the guest blog below.

But first I would like to comment on my own conclusions from the meeting. Nothing will work until we address the confusopoly of initiatives and programmes with neither promotion or marketing budgets beyond a press release for the launch.

I am pleased to say that those around the table agreed to bypass the political problems of co-ordination across organisational boundaries and set about cross-referring to each other’s programmes and information services. Hopefully this will lead to improved awareness of those which work and to co-operation in moving towards shared updating services, with promotion via the former Grids for Learning, now the members of the National Educational Network.  These are the procurement co-operatives which collectively provide broadband to over 60% of schools.

The provision of careers and advice and guidance in schools could be transformed if employers looking for local native talent were to work with and through the Grids to provide and promote careers material that is attractive to teachers, pupils and parents. Once adolescents and their parents discover degree level apprenticeships, leading to well-paid careers not crippling debts, we will see the student debt-funded Ponzi scheme unravel . We will see Universities competing instead to work with employers to deliver the skills of the future – using the government funding and tax breaks for apprenticeships, the grant and levy scheme and the revenues from Tier 2 visas to organise a variety of programmes linked to under-graduate and post graduate modular degrees.

But what about getting the younger generation ready for the opportunities that will be on offer …

= = =

Now I hand this blog to Julia …

“I promised to send through a synopsis of some of the points I made so here it is – apologies if I seem to be soap boxing but, as many of us do, I feel that we have to discuss effective actions to make certain we are not in the same position in 1 year, 5 years, 10 years time. These are my personal views and I know some people will disagree with me but here goes anyway!  At least it should start an interesting discussion. One of the reasons I work with Career Colleges is because they are working at trying to solve some of the problems below and are dedicated to making certain that young people are prepared for a career. I was fascinated to hear of Brian’s work with autistic children – please can you send me his email address?

Michael’s project [The Plymouth Cybersecurity Skills Partnership on which I recently blogged] is so exciting because he has succeeded in doing something about one of the issues we have in the Digital world and is directing young people’s interests in an innovative and effective way as well as providing them with the skills they need for a career.

The many employers I speak to and work with are asking a very basic question : “Where are we going to find the skills we need now and in the future”. We have all heard the comments that our education system is not producing the skills businesses require. Many businesses and organisations are currently focusing on a very narrow pipeline – namely graduates and that is not a large enough cohort to draw from. Often the degrees people are exiting university with, do not match the skills needs of the Digitech industry. We do not currently spend the same energy on the potential pipeline from the non-university students, disadvantaged, women/girls, special needs (Brian spoke about this with great eloquence) , returners (ie women returning to work after children), those needing to change careers (redundancies) etc etc and we definitely do not “turn on” our young people early enough to the many exciting careers in technology. We know we are not teaching Digital morality, etiquette etc effectively to our youth and definitely not early enough. A 4 year old is only 14 years away from being a potential skill and contributor to our economy and society. It is key that we start planning now to make certain that as many young people as possible are in a position to take advantage of the requirement for their skills and making certain they have the skills that make them valuable.

We discussed “content” but often the education offerings and programs/qualifications are “preaching to the converted” and we are not persuading people who are not yet interested in this sector. Plus a great deal of “content” is now out of date. Hence we lose potential talent. The progression figures from GCSE to “A” Levels/apprenticeships and progression into Digital careers are still worrying for girls even if they have done really well at GCSE STEM subjects.  There are many studies that show the gender bias starts from early in life and unfortunately is perpetuated by parents and teachers.

Experis Geoff Smith “Traditional perceptions need challenging, starting in early education and continuing throughout our careers. In addition, the opportunities that the tech industry offers – it’s innovative, fast-paced, exciting and stimulating – need to be better communicated to girls from a young age, so they aren’t routed down paths that are less tech-focused when it comes to their studies and future careers,” he says. “Everyone is responsible for addressing the issue, from the government, businesses and the wider tech industry to parents, families and peer groups”

The question many students ask is “what am I learning this for” – and without context we know that it is more difficult to learn. If the ultimate goal is university then they may be learning in order to pass exams (the gateway) to the next stage but if that is not the goal then, unless we provide a reason,  many young people are lost in the education system and they direct their interests elsewhere (gaming, dark web, online  – all of which we have little control over because much of it is not included in our education system and their use of the technologies is not necessarily transferable to careers in the industry, or they don’t have the business skills that are required). Our Careers Advice and introduction has to improve so that the learning context is set so much earlier. Nursery, infant even primary children have such immense curiosity so my question would be “at what stage are we turning off our young people from learning?”.

  1. Staff – CPD and Careers Advice

In my opinion this is one of the main barriers to young people seeking Digital careers. It was appalling when I was at school and it does not appear to be any better. There is a lack of Digital knowledge on the part of the staff, teaching and advising our young people,  (ie they haven’t heard of IoT, don’t understand the growth of how Data  is being used,  the many uses of gaming in heath, defence, education etc,  Cybersecurity, Cloud , AI, Smart technologies etc etc etc)  and the lack of knowledge re the various careers available. It is difficult to find employers who are willing to give education staff the experience in the current technology world and it is very difficult for them to stay up to date in an ever changing and fast moving environment. Teachers are often restricted and bound by out of date qualifications and experience.

According to various surveys there is a gender bias amongst teachers and parents as demonstrated by a survey carried out last month by Atomik Research for Centrica.

Almost a third of male secondary school teachers think science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) careers are more for boys than girls. The research highlights a gender divide among teachers and pupils when it came to careers in Stem.

29 % of female teachers say they are “not at all confident” in their understanding of Stem careers, compared to 15 % of male teachers. Among pupils, 27 % of girls say Stem careers are not for them, compared to 14 % of boys. Almost half of pupils, 44 %, say they could not think of any female role models in Stem.

The vast majority of teachers want businesses to have a greater role in giving pupils information about Stem careers.

The survey finds that although 61 % of pupils say teachers are influential in helping them decide their next steps after secondary schools, 30 % of teachers do not feel adequately informed about all the options available to pupils.  69 % of teachers say they would like more information, training and guidance from business about Stem careers.

In February, a survey for the Baker Dearing Educational Trust found that almost two-thirds of young people working in science, technology and engineering careers believe that schools do not understand which skills employers are going to need.

There is a thought provoking  “Inspiring the Future” video which shows how early this gender bias exhibits itself.

  1. Career Ready
    In many Education Institutions there is a nod to Project Based Learning and sometimes that is because they find it difficult to work with business or to attract businesses to work with them. Too often they think that setting up an Employer Advisory Board is sufficient but many businesses do not want to attend regular talking shops although they are happy to work on a shorter projects. Employers are looking for young people with various abilities including the right “attitude”, able to present themselves well both in the written and verbal sense , critical thinking, and with the ability to work in a team . Whilst many private schools and good state schools work on these attributes , many education institutions do not stress these skills or do not have time or the ability to develop skills that make people career ready. There are many reasons for this such as English as a second language, poverty, lack of parental involvement, special needs, learning dificulties. Parents/guardians also have a responsibility to develop these attributes. If young people don’t understand that these skills are necessary for progression then they will not see the point of developing them. They also think that their personal use of Social Media and technology will translate into the digital requirements of business and we know that the two areas have very different requirements- Instagram, Twitter for Digital marketing are very different from putting up a live video of an evening out with your peers.  Involving our students in projects with businesses often helps to highlight the need for developing these skills.

I am shocked at the number of young people who enter FE without literacy skills in English and maths or qualifications in these two crucial subjects. The CVER report “Building Skills for All: A Review of England” reveals that 9 million people in this country do not have basic numeracy and literacy skills, including 10% of those at university.

  1. Successful projects generally have a driver or champion who makes certain that there is progress to the end goal  – this includes motivation, direction, communication.4. Good citizens – I believe that is important to include being a “good citizen” in all our projects and learning.  Hence many of the Digital projects I run involve a “charitable” element so that young people begin to understand the problems our society needs to address and also that they develop empathy.5. Mentors There are many young people who do not have a “mentor” or role model in their life and some at 16  (or younger) are living on their own, looking after younger siblings, ailing parents etc etc. It is difficult to “learn” when you are dealing with all these external issues but we try to help them to understand that education can help them with solving some of these problems and at least give them choices.

September 9, 2017  1:30 PM

The “Great British Broadband Boost” is ringfenced for BT.

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
backhaul, Broadband, BT, competition, fttc, Gigaclear, Openreach

The DCMS Press release headlined “The Great British Broadband Boost” needs to be put in context.  The “boost” comprises £465 million clawback from BT (because take-up was greater than that on which the BDUK contracts were based) plus £180 million underspend (the amount below contract actually spent in order to achieve local 90% “access” targets).  According to the press release £200 million of this has already been committed.

The reinvestment criteria for the clawback and underspend were summarised by DCMS in 2014 . Unless these have been changed, it can only be spent via BT to improve access in those areas where take-up was most over contract and/or the spend to achieve the “access” targets was most under budget.  Alternatively Local Authorities can ask for their share to sit on BT’s balance sheet, accumulating interest, before they can reclaim it, in about 2020.

The local authorities concerned and the take-up rates on which the clawback amount are based were summarised by ISPreview this morning. The tables also show how the gap between headline claims of “passed by” and the “take up” numbers vary: from 31% in Merseyside to 55.6% in Rutland (home of the UK’s first FTTC connection). The actual service received by those connected to “Superfast” can however vary wildly. In some cases speeds can actually go down not up. Some of the newly announced FTTP “pilots” are in areas where residents have not received the expected improvements from Phases 1 and/or 2.  Others appear to be adjacent to areas where competitors to BT are already offering faster speeds.

[See footnote for explanation of change to the paragraph as originally posted]

The recent announcements by BT and DMCS and the accompanying radio interviews, imply that BT is expecting local authorities to allow it to spend the claw back on whatever gives it (BT) the best return in retaining existing customers or acquiring new customers while moving towards a 95% “access” target. Matthew Hare’s offer on the Today programme this morning for Gigaclear to fill one of the consequent gaps, without requiring an upfront contribution, helps illustrate the limitations on those who will benefit, as well as the extent to which they will do so. It also illustrates the contrast between what will be on offer from BT (usually extended FTTC and/or alternative technologies offering 10 – 24mbps) and that which Gigaclear is rolling out.

Matthew Hare also made a throwaway comment which illustrates the pressures on BT. Players like City Fibre, Gigaclear, Hyperoptic now have serious backing from pension funds and institutional investors. They see utility fibre communications providers as an attractive long term investment. By contrast BT is seen as a risky hybrid. There is a fear that its content and systems integration operations may contain yet more accounting nasties. In consequence its share price, and ability to attract low cost finance, are in the doldrums.

Perhaps the next big “boost” to British Broadband will be a decision by BT to do its own break-up.

There are signs that Openreach is preparing for this by taking a very much more positive attitude towards infrastructure partnership deals with competitors to BT Retail and BT Wholesale.  Meanwhile BT’s main staff expansion programmes are on maintenance and security, including bringing operations back from India. It would make very good sense, as part of its positioning as a trusted utility, for BT to provide high quality secure services for the UK communications and content industries as whole, not just to sort its own problems, e.g. leaks from Indian call centres,

Meanwhile, however, the growing take-up of local broadband is putting severe strain on the national backhaul infrastructure with its many shared points of vulnerability (to fire, flood, equipment/cable theft not just hardware/software failure). Hence the importance of the work of the DPA  Digital Infrastructure Group on topics like Backhaul and Maintenance Competition and (in co-operation with the DPA 21CN Skills Group) independently certified skills.


I received the following e-mail from the Better Connected Project Team in West Sussex Council:

Your comment: “The tables also show how the gap between headline claims of “passed by” and the “take up” numbers vary: from 23.9% in West Sussex (where a full fibre pilot has been announced because the speeds available over FTTC are so dire)”  has raised some eyebrows here in West Sussex!

The take up figures compiled by DCMS and quoted by ISP review as its source material  were incorrect. The figure of 23.9% was used as the take up total for both the BDUK phase one and phase two totals.

The correct total for BDUK phase one take up is 46.1%. The total for BDUK phase two take up is 23.9%.

DCMS have corrected the source document, a google doc emailed out to accompany the press release. They are also alerting ISP Review to the error.

Last week’s announcement by the Treasury noting that West Sussex has been chosen as a full fibre pilot area has nothing to do with current speeds, which we expect to be a minimum of ‘superfast’ for 95%  of the county by the end of the year. Independent website ThinkBroadband concur that 94.8% of homes and businesses already have access to ‘superfast’ broadband: https://labs.thinkbroadband.com/local/west-sussex,E10000032

I was therefore please to amend the blog to read as above. I should perhaps add that the map of actual broadband speeds published by the Consumer Association indicates an average speed of 15.9 Mbps for Chichester and 19.7 Mbps for Arun. This is consistent with the speeds achieved by relatives who were upgraded to “Superfast” last year (and whose systems I have used while staying with them).


September 7, 2017  7:21 AM

How much of your Adtech audience is for real?

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Adtech, Facebook, Fraud, Google

How much of your on-line advertising budget is spent getting clicks from avatars? Claims as to proportion of paid for adtech clicks that are fraudulent range from 25% in 2015 to 80% earlier this year. Claims as to the cost of fraud range from $7bn last year to $15 billion and rising this year.

Meanwhile a growing number of us deploy adblockers which have to be switched off in order to read the articles which tell us so.

So who should be worried by the “revelation” in the Wall Street Journal that Facebook is claiming to reach US audiences larger than the demographics?

No-one – because the gullible are funding cheap/uncharged search engines, social media and content.


Everyone – because the bursting of the bubble could end the big data collection, advertising funded, cheap content business model and the consequent collapse in the share prices of the cartel (some would say duopoly) which controls access to the on-line world would trigger a Wall Street crash.

Or is this a non-story because clever techies will identify who is responsible provided they are foreigners and fix the problem. A quick Google search reveals a plethora of “solutions” to click fraud.

And who should be responsible for selection and deploying those solutions and acting on the results: the marketing department, the IT/digital departments or the information risk/security department. Given that the sums at risk are so much larger that those from data breaches, should this not be getting more attention than the GDPR. Or is this another of the Elephants in the Room .

When the DPA review progress with the Cybersecurity Skills Pilot next week I plan to suggest we explore whether any of the main On-line Retailers would like to include material on addressing ad fraud in the modules on “secure on-line marketing” that are beginning to be developed . Please let me know via the DPA contact point if you would be interested.



September 5, 2017  8:15 AM

Learning from success: the Plymouth Cybersecurity Skills Partnership

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
BCS, CREST, cybersecurity, Fraud, IAAC, iot, NCFTA, Piracy, telecare

On September 12th the Digital Policy Alliance will review progress (including lessons learned) with its pilot local Cybersecurity Skills Partnership. The meeting will also include contributions on the current state of the UK’s national security skills programmes and discussion on how to join these up locally.

The pilot, led by Michael Dieroff of Bluescreen IT, engages with national (e.g. BCS and IAAC) and international (e.g. CISCO, Comptia and ISC2) players who want to explore practical co-operation away from the pressures of corporate and regulatory politics as well as with the City Council, both Local Universities, FE Colleges, Schools, the Chamber of Commerce and local employers (large and small, public and private). The strategy is akin to that which led to the NCFTA being established in Pittsburgh, not Washington. The distance from Plymouth to London is about the same. The train service may be better but the journey still takes long enough to deter timewasters.

Please contact the Digital Policy Alliance Cybersecurity Skills Sub Group if you want an invitation to work with your peers to identify and “grow” those who will help you meet your own security, investigation and “asset recovery” needs (and those of your customers) over the months, not just years ahead.  And I do mean months, not years.

The Security Skills Incubator at the heart of the Plymouth Partnership was operational within four months of the decision to go ahead.

By then the first batch of supervised work experience trainees had already produced practical results, using leading edge tools to address current risks and live incidents within a fortnight of starting their own “learning by doing” programmes. The incubator brings together students from a variety of programmes, from schools work experience, through FE and HE level apprentices and undergraduate and post graduate students and mature cross trainees. The employer participants are expected to share supervision and mentoring in return for having their problems and those of their clients addressed.

Given that the provision of supervised work experience is the biggest problem in organizing apprenticeships of all kinds, not just cyber, whatever the size of the organisation, this approach is inspired. It also cracks the problem of helping SMEs who have only one or two apprentices and little or no resource to manage in-house work-experience other than for non-technical tasks.

That is, of course, not the whole story.

It took over a year to find a UK location that was suitable and serious: i.e. local government and police authority serious about working with FE/HE/Schools, local employers (large and small, public and private) and locally based security consultants and training providers to address local skills, awareness and response needs.

The first attempt failed when we discovered that the lead University gave absolute priority to bidding for research funding and Government “challenges”. Co-operation with local business (large or small) to meet skills needed was well down in its priorities. We now know that is the rule, not the exception.

The second attempt failed when the lead law enforcement partner was unable to talk seriously with industry and education partners because it was seriously overcommitted with high profile investigations. We now know that is, again, the rule not the exception.

The third attempt failed when the lead training provider won sufficient business to keep its existing training operations fully occupied for the rest of the year. Its success in cutting the time from identifying talent to enabling customers to bill the newly trained “consultants” to HMG to around six months has, however, concentrated the minds of its competitors. More-over it could have could have cut the elapsed time in half, but for the time for the security clearances needed by HMG to come through.

With Plymouth we went from discussions in the margins of the launch of STEM Plymouth to live running at a rate of knots – as befits a 400 year old global centre for Maritime Security (now including including Computer Assisted Piracy and Fraud and the IOT devices that “infest” the world of shipping and international supply chains). We found that Plymouth was well accustomed to local and global co-operation. Its local networks for co-operation on skills development go back over five years – beginning with programmes to reduce dependence on imported construction skills (at all levels from bricklayers and carpenters to civil engineering project managers). Its global networks embrace every nation with a long coastline (it is home to the worlds main marine, hydography and oceanography research institutes).

In parallel with digital apprenticeships of all kinds, the Peninsula Medical School is looking to clinical assistant and medical apprenticeship programmes to reduce dependence on imported doctors and nurses.  We expect medical security (including for telecare and telemedicine devices) to be as big a work stream as Maritime Security. But neither will be as immediately important as the protection of vulnerable on-line consumers.

This is one of the top priorities of the Devon and Cornwell Police Commissioner. Over half the over 65s nationally have been targeted by on-line predators. The problem is particularly acute in the West Country where banks and retailers are seeking to herd their customers on-line.

The overall aim of STEM Plymouth is to demonstrate by world-leadership by 2020 and the celebrations around the fourth centenary of the departure of a group of idealists who set off to invent their own future on the far side of the world. By then I anticipate that the cybersecurity partnership will be well on the way to emulating an even older Plymouth tradition: providing a global support base for those who help police cyberspace in the way the forbears policed the oceans – Elizabeth 1st was Francis Drake’s largest shareholder and took half his “prize money”.

One of the more imaginative exercises is to intercept teenage “explorers” before they acquire criminal records, so that we can enlist their talents and motivations (e.g. for recognition by those they respect) in hunting down those defrauding their grandparents. This approach is expected to be more productive than that of those who would convict them as hackers first, thus making them unemployable other than by GCHQ. Either way, we will make little or no progress in bringing law and order to cyberspace until fraudsters and other predators live in fear of being identified and having their assets seized.

Other exercises being piloted are more conventional, such as how to produce attractive careers material that is both accurate and intelligible to the target audiences – and get it in front of them. Here the aims include taking existing material (e.g. that of CREST) and helping implement and test a variety front ends to different audiences.

On and after the 12th we plan to start the next phase of the pilot, including engaging large employers who need to better protect vulnerable customers before they face massive fines under GDPR. We particularly wish to those engage banks, on-line retailers, insurance companies and asset recovery operations who would like to test processes for practical co-operation in a controlled environment.

Please contact the DPA Digital Security Skills Group with a note on what you would expect to bring to a partnership and, equally importantly, what you would expect in return. Those without objectives are unlikely to help us drive for realistic results. We are already looking at working with partnerships to serve other parts of the UK – but only where a critical mass of employers are already moving down the path of creating good working relationships with local authorities, law enforcement, Universities, Colleges and commercial training providers. Otherwise life is to short.

August 28, 2017  11:41 AM

The IT Policy “Elephants in the Room” – the taboo policy issues

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Broadband, cartel, IPR, newspeak, PICTFOR

The PICTFOR summer reception on Wednesday 23rd August was sponsored by the British Computer Society at Newspeak House.

The event began with a discussion of  issues (see the invitation) expected to be of interest to the next generation of Tech Entrepreneurs who were the target audience. There was, however, a marked difference between the questions posed in the opening discussion and those to the tech entrepreneurs wanted answers – according to their ranking on Sli.do.

The former were, in large part,  a re-run of the questions asked 35 years ago during IT Year (1982) – about the impact of AI and Robotics, The Future of Work and Skills.

The top three concerns of the audience were:

  1. Broadband connectivity – and whether it needed regulation or market forces
  2. Whether the use of encryption should be interfered with by government
  3. “Is the market power of Google, Facebook etc. a problem? Do we need a return to the “trust busting era?”

Brexit was further down the list while“How will automation/AI disrupt the work place of the future?” was an also ran, alongside skills issues.

Shortly after this blog was launched, a decade ago, I did a series of posts (“The politics of …”) giving background to some of the big issues of the day. After listening to the youngsters, who will have to live with the mess that yet another generation has created by avoiding the need to address them, I thought I would have a go at identifying some of the current elephants in the room. Most are not new. They have just got bigger and harder to address over the years.

They ares – in no particularly order:

1)            The gulf between ordinary human beings (now the vast majority of internet users) and internet enthusiasts/dominant suppliers (who continue to patronize their customers). In the long run “the customer is King” and the time for reckoning is coming. I first blogged on theme of “herding the sheep on line to be fleeced” six years ago. How long before the sheep revolt and overwhelm the dogs? The intellectual arrogance of the digerati goes back to when separate computer departments were first created – “you can always tell a programmer, but will he listen?”

2)            The avoidance of responsibility/liability by suppliers/publishers including for the software/systems used in IoT devices. Third party risks are now uninsurable and the time for a Ralph Nader (Unsafe at any speed) to take on the giants of the on-line world is overdue. Will the corporate lawyers of Silicon Valley and Seattle be more successful in resisting change than those of Detroit and Dearborn when she takes on the misogynist on-line  technocracy

3)            The rising tide of fraud and impersonation using information that “leaks” from big data business models. The “solutions”, including third party liability for the consequences of such leaks, will probably destroy current advertised funding business models – if the collapse of belief among big advertising buyers that the sales benefits justify the cost (including reputational) does not do so first.

4)            Social/geographic divisions between those (whether consumers or businesses) with good/reliable connectivity and/or access to on-line products and services (including education) and those without. Current measures of “availability” are seriously misleading. Hence the growing anger of voters in over a parliamentary constituencies. The effects are compounded by the withdrawal of off-line services (from banks through libraries to crime reporting) before the on-line equivalents, let alone integrated and accessible support operations. are fit for purpose.

5)            Co-operation by the G7/G20 to ensure that Airbnb, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Paypal, Uber et al pay sales/corporate tax somewhere. At that point we will discover whether the Internet really does provide benefits other than tax avoidance.

6)            A three way split between Californian Liberals/Corporate Lawyers, State Surveillance Authorities and the General Public over the meaning of Internet Safety. For the public it includes freedom from cyber predators (bullies, trolls, child abusers, fraudsters etc.). For the corporate lobbyists and their libertarian allies it means freedom from legal liability, taxation and regulation. For the State it means protection from the dissidents and/or terrorists of the day (from Anarchists and Fenians to Anonymous and Jihadists) and a set of assumptions and priorities that go back over three thousand years.

7)           A revolt against US patent/copyright trolls.  In the fast moving 18th Century patent protection was limited to 14 years and those who did not publish or bring product to market lost protection. I have not blogged on IPR wars for some years but Brexit (and the UK exit from the EU compromises) bring an opportunity to review what really is in the UK interest if we want to be a hub for global on-line creativity – not just a marketing sink for that developed and sourced elsewhere.

8)            Action to open up/regulate (as utilities) the interlinked national and international (Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter etc.) the “cartel masquerading as anarchy”   that controls our access to the on-line world.

9)            Action to expose/update the middle-class puberty rite of kicking the fledglings from the nest with three years getting into debt at the hands of an academic Ponzi scheme (the fiscal, intellectual and moral equivalent of FGM, crippling rather than enriching their future lives).  I have just blogged my 1982 paper on the need to reform our approach to education for a world of Artificial Intelligence, Global Information Sharing and Robotics on-line for a new generation. 35 years ago it was seen as visionary. Today the ideas are  almost mainstream – but they will still be fought tooth and nail by those who believe in the Platonic ideal of one education, for one career, for life,  see their current academic status and way of life at risk – and see only problems, not opportunities.

10) This one is for you to add. Comments as to what I have left out are most welcome. I have a bottle of House of Lords whisky for the best.

August 28, 2017  11:26 AM

Skills for the world of the future: AI, Big Data, Robotics etc.

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Artificial intelligence, Robotics, Training

Over the past few weeks we have had much hype of the effect of Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and Robotics on the world of work and the subjects we should be teaching our chidren. Almost exactly 35 years ago, Donald Michie, the “father” of research into machine intelligence, was given a free hand to bring together scientists, academic and politicians to speak on artificial intelligence, expert systems, robotics, and the future of work, education and medicine at the annual Sperry Seminar for the UK Technical Press. The speakers included Ed Feigenbaum, the father of “expert systems”, Walter Bodmer,  later to launch the human genome project (still by far the worlds biggest “Big Data” project) and Robert McGhee the pioneer of walking machines.  The results were published in 1983 as”Intelligent Systems – the unprecedented opportunity “.

Having been responsible for selling the “Micros in Schools” programme to government, I was given the task of looking at the impact on educational values and priorities system and concluded that throwing money at the system would delay the fundamental changes. I was asked to reformat the paper as a political pamphlet, published as Learning for Change, which sold out. But the messages were ignored (other than by one of Jesuit schools which still had them embedded them in its a 6th form course over a decade later).

When, 15 years later. Government baulked at the bottomless pit, it began persuading school-leavers to mortgage their futures.  Fast forward another 20 years and the futurology of 1982 (AI, Big Data, Robotics, globally teleconferenced research and packaged on-line education and training programmes etc.) is now mainstream. Large parts of the Ponzi Scheme at the heart of UK Higher Education Policy are now irrelevant, not just expensive.  In my previous blog, I discussed part of the way forward but we should not under-estimate the scale of change needed. It will also be fought tooth and nail by those seeking to preserve academic lifestyles at the expense of the young (as opposed to looking to the mature learning market.

The political recommendations in Learning for Change have been overtaken by events but the original analysis, as edited by Donald Michie and Jean Hayes for publication, has not:

= = =

Training for Multi-Career Lives – Philip Virgo: National Computing Centre

Learning for Change: Training, Retraining and Lifelong Education For Multi-Career Lives


Most of the basic skills needed over the next hundred years can be predicted with reasonable certainty but many of the precise trades and professions cannot. “Age-Related Careers” is an employment strategy which can handle such uncertainty. Fundamental changes to the education system are necessary. Information Technology makes these possible at economic cost. Encouragement and favourable publicity are more effective weapons of persuasion than coercion but many actions at all levels are needed if the inability of our education system to cope with change is not to deny us the benefits which the new technology is bringing to other societies.


Some time ago I heard Ian Lloyd say that our greatest requirement from the so-called Microelectronics Revolution was automated abattoirs for sacred cows. Nowhere is the slaughter of sacred cows more necessary than in our education system. Its inability to cope with change must not deny us the benefits which new technology is bringing to other societies. I shall begin with some comments on the role of our education system in the past, and how it must adapt if we are to have any worthwile future.

We can predict with reasonable certainty most of the basic skills we are going to need over the next hundred years or so. Where we cannot we need a strategy to handle uncertainty. 3I will propose the strategy of “Age-Related Careers” and will then discuss some of the fundamental institutional changes that will be necessary and how the new technologies can help.

In conclusion, I will identify some of the obstacles we must overcome on the way and how those in the information industry can help.

  1. The Role of the Educational System

200 years ago was the take-off period for Britain’s first industrial revolution: the take-off that transformed England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from an economic condition akin to that of modern India, famines and all, to one akin to that of Hong Kong today.

There may be extremes of poverty in Hong Kong but few actually die of starvation. The last English famine in which whole villages died was in the middle of the eighteenth century. The last Scottish famine was in the 1820s.

There are many myths about the consequences of that revolution but few about its causes and course.

An ambitious and underprivileged (but also undertaxed) class of entrepreneurs in an unregulated, unplanned environment, sought to buy social respectability by making money out of providing the materials and munitions to enable Britain to fight each of its continental neighbours in turn. In doing so they managed to create a forty year long investment led boom, ending only with the post Napoleonic war slump in the 1820s. Then another long boom followed as Railway mania gripped the country, fostered by the same group.

We have read much about the evils of nineteenth century education: it is worth thinking about the education system in the eighteenth century, the education of the men who made the first industrial revolution. Since the Royal Navy was the only service fit for a gentleman of courage (the Army was discredited as a continental-style threat to civil liberties), and since the specialist Naval academies of the nineteenth century had yet to be founded, elementary engineering and scientific mathematics ranked higher than Latin and Greek in the education of a gentleman. Meanwhile, the Quakers and Non-Conformists of the Midlands and North West, excluded from grammar schools and universities ran more Trade, Commerce and Artisan schools than the rest of Europe added together. The poor condition of the English grammar schools and universities was no hindrance since only clergymen looked to them for inspiration.

In the nineteenth century, with the founding of Naval Academies, religious tolerance and the new found respectability of Army and Empire, the picture changed dramatically. The children and grandchildren of the men who made the first Industrial Revolution could enjoy the clergyman’s education of Latin, Greek, and theology in reformed grammar schools and universities. Trade, commerce and engineering were relegated to the ragged aspirants of the Workers Educational Association despite the complaints of boring foreigners, like Prince Albert.

Meanwhile, the rest of Europe, with no world-wide Empire to administer and having to innovate rather than live off past innovation, learned from the Quakers and the Non-Conformists and made no such mistakes. Thus the seeds of our century-long decline were sown in the classrooms of Dr.  Arnold’s Rugby rather than on the playing fields of Eton.

Now that we have spent our inheritance and must once more earn a living we can do a lot worse than to look again at the institutions of the eighteenth century. We must recognise that education should not be a joy for the few and a trial of youth for the many but a lifelong experience for all, as and when the opportunity arises. The young should acquire a desire and an ambition to “improve” themselves and should associate learning with reward, not with examination trauma.

The men of the late eighteenth century shared many of our problems. They knew the world was about to change but didn’t know in which direction, unemployed anarchic bloodshed alternating with tyranny as in France or hard working republican virtue as in America. Some thought the steam engine would usher in an age of leisure (or mass unemployment), others were confident that work might change (from brawn to brain, maybe), but that it would still be necessary and that the basic skills needed were likely to be much the same.

The latter were right. Two centuries later we are still looking forward to an age of leisure. I venture to predict that in two hundred years our descendants will still be looking. Meanwhile, it is our duty to do at least as well, and preferably better, than our ancestors in preparing for change.

  1. Future Skill Requirements

We will still have to work for a living but the nature of that work is likely to change and we cannot predict many of the changes with much certainty.

We can no longer afford to spend one or two decades of detailed preparation for a single life-long career progression. Instead we should aim, like our ancestors, to impart those basic skills almost certain to be in continuous demand and to build a system capable of responding rapidly to change, and disseminating new skills to any age group when necessary.

This is all the more important since our education systems appear incapable of supplying the skills currently in demand, let alone new ones. Where we can predict major industries, such as computer assisted video entertainment and learning, mass produced electronics based medical aids, biotechnology and telematics, we, unlike the Japanese, are incapable of delivering the appropriate career preparation or retraining. We even appear to have lost the ability to impart the basic commercial skills necessary to create fast growing new businesses. If we do not change our educational systems to produce generations capable of competing with the Japanese, the Germans and the Americans, we will lose out on the millions of wealth creating jobs potentially available. In consequence, we won’t have the resources to support the idle decline, like that of nineteenth century Spain, that will be our lot.

For some of the new industries we can specify the technician training requirements in fair detail: for video they are akin to film production on a very tight budget and time schedule, for biotechnology they are a cross between process engineering and brewing real ale.

But our training facilities are far too thin on the ground. We need packaged course material for mass delivery but no commercial organisation will invest money in developing such material when it will be pirated as soon as it is supplied. Copyright reform is essential.

We can also list the basic skills that everyone will need for the office, factory and home of the future.

In the office of the future with its video workstations, electronic filing systems and telecommunications links, technical literacy and dexterity will, of course, be necessary. However, the ability to think clearly and express oneself accurately and concisely, to get sensible answers from the all-embracing information databases, will be even more important. The GIGO principle, (garbage in leads to garbage out), has its counterpart in information science where a woolly question will produce a meaningless flood of irrelevant data. The problem with modern management is already too much rather than too little information and computers don’t often help. If the West Yorkshire police had had computerised information systems, they might still be looking for the Yorkshire Ripper. The uniformed policemen who finally caught him would have been too busy helping administer the database to leave the police station.

Without old fashioned linguistic skills, as tested in a “comprehension” exercise, and without the ability to frame an intelligent question and to recognise a sensible answer, the new Information Technology can all too often make things worse rather than better.

Similarly, the ability of the technology to perform instant statistical analyses will make the knowledge of what those statistical analyses mean, if anything, essential. However, to Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic we need to add three new skills:

  • The first is the concept of simulation, beginning with the concept of a computer model analogous to the real world in the way that a meccano crane or a model railway is to real things, but leading to the understanding of how computer models can be run backwards, from the desired ends to identify and test the logic, assumptions and premisses which lead to that end. This may well have a dramatic effect on the way we think since in many modelling exercises, the significant variables turn out to be unmeasurable, or based on hunches, value judgments or even moral principles where mere logic is of limited value: for example, the so-called “social” costs which befuddle public enquiries and motorway or airport planning exercises.
  • The second new skill is problem structuring and solving, and in particular group problem solving of the kind used by the class “cheat”, who knows which classmate’s homework to copy in which subject. By definition, this skill is selected against in our educational system and thus its most skilled practitioners frequently end up working against society as rebels, criminals or parasites rather than in the key management posts which they should occupy.
  • Thorough and imaginative approaches to group problem identification, structuring and solving are going to be essential in the factory of the future where quality control is going to be one of the main occupations. Ensuring that complex computer controlled products are functioning correctly, and that the specification of the control program is adequate under all circumstances and not dangerously inadequate under even the most unlikely circumstances, may well become the most labour intensive part of the production process.

Outside the factory the maintenance men who are to service the multiplicity of devices from automatic doors and light sensitive blinds, to mass-produced powered limbs and living aids for the elderly and rheumatic, will need similar skills since remote or automatic fault diagnosis will often be inadequate.

Even in modern Britain with the lowest proportion of self-employed and small business proprietors of any country outside the Communist block, the basic commercial skills of running a business are needed by more than one in eight of the population. If one accepts the thesis that most of the new jobs are going to be created in small businesses, private sector personal services and the informal economy, and that in the future more than one in four of the population will, at some time in their lives run their own business, a revival of “commercial” and “business” studies as subjects to be taught to all, in school, is necessary. Their current absence from the curriculum condemns the school leaver to servitude, unemployment or, at best, several wasted years learning for himself what he should have been taught at school. If education is truly a preparation for life, their absence cannot be defended outside a communist society.

The impact of technology on the personal service jobs, from street cleaning to street walking, will be negligible. Gardeners, window cleaners, plumbers, cooks and so on will be needed just as now.

At the other end of society, however, the changes may well be traumatic as expert systems render obsolete the book-learning and machine-like logical skills of most lawyers, accountants and consultants.

The robot that can sweep a factory floor or weed a garden is at least a century off. But most of the work of the Inland Revenue, most administrative accountancy, the routine conveyancing that keeps most solicitors in business, the complex diagnoses that elevate the Harley Street consultant above the local general practitioner, can already be done faster and more accurately by computer. In twenty years the local tax office will give an instant response to your query and the general practitioner will no longer refer you to the hospital for analyses and diagnoses but will do them himself with the aid of his surgery expert systems backed by links to national epidemiological and other databases.

There will be a great many skilled professionals checking the systems and equipment used but status will pass to the man doing the job that no mere machine can do. Giving an enema to an incontinent cripple will be a more valued task than diagnosing some rare cancer or tropical fever – “the simple application of memory and logic which any properly programmed computer can do”.

The possession of book-learning or logical reasoning ability will lose status just as literacy did when everyone could read and write. The human touches of sympathy and creativity will be the hallmark of the high status job.

The trauma of this reversal in our hierarchy of status cannot be under-estimated. At one fell swoop it removes the rationale behind most of our educational values, with their emphasis on memorising large quantities of verbal information, from irregular verbs to the naming of parts, the ability to follow complicated logical processes, quote obscure documents or recognise unusual sets of symptoms. It removes the main justification for the examination treadmill to which we chain our adolescent youth in a set of puberty rites crueler than those of primitive Africa. At least in Africa they don’t label any of the participants as failures!

Rather than develop the learning skills of the few, we must train those of the many so that they can use the artificial intelligence and memory aids that will be available for all. Thus machines will take over the menial logic and memory tasks, leaving us humans with the interesting problems of judgment and the many interpersonal and service tasks which they may aid but cannot take over.

These changes are going to take time, certainly decades, possibly even centuries. But they are going to be fundamental and many new trades, skills and professions are going to be required on the way. However, unless we recognise and accept the transience of many of these new trades, we are going to condemn future generations to the fate of the handloom weavers. The handloom weavers were called into existence by the availability of cheap yarn, but were reluctant or unable to change trade when machine weaving became practicable. Their fate gives a stark lesson that a single career may not be enough in an age of fundamental structural evolution.

The handloom weavers’ modern counterparts could well be the commercial programmers and analysts of today. Called into existence by the availability of expensive computers which had to be used more efficiently, they may well be reluctant or unable to change trade when packaged software on cheap computers has made their particular branch of computing skills redundant.

  1. Age Related Careers?

Given the uncertainty as to the duration of requirement for specific trades, should we not prepare our school leavers for those jobs known to be in current – but possibly temporary – demand, while reserving certain careers, where demand is likely to be constant, for older generations who, because of family commitments, are no longer so mobile, who may take longer to retrain and who must therefore plan further ahead?

— Flexibility for the young

15-30 Mobility with Transient Skills

— Security for the family

30-50 Executive/Managerial

— Academe for the mature

50-80 Education/Social Service

Thus the school leavers would be prepared for the currently fashionable jobs and for those jobs requiring rapid learning or geographic mobility. As the individuals mature and seek to settle down they would retrain for a more stable executive or managerial career. Social careers, such as education or caring for others would be reserved for those with experience of all the vicissitudes of life.

Make no mistake, the very concept of a multi-career life, let alone the suggestions of age related careers, is at variance with our trades union, social security and pension structures, let alone our educational systems.  It is also incompatible with the Graeco-Roman ideal of Plato’s Republic of one education for one career for life.

It is, however, similar to the way many non-European societies, including Japan, are organised, with their veneration of the growing wisdom of age, and the tasks suitable for different age groups.

Rather than expound analogies and principles I will attempt to describe the careers of an average school leaver of 1990.

John Dent, cousin of Arthur Dent, has no academic interests. On a school project in Wales he once had to be manhandled out of a museum at closing time, but that one symptom of deviant enthusiasm was quickly cured. He is reasonably dextrous, likes making things in the engineering workshop and crashing other people’s computer systems.

In his last year at school he does a course on Numerical Control Programming which includes part-time work in a local engineering company which he joins as a trainee robogate supervisor.

In his spare time he is active in the local CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) branch, gets interested in the mechanics of brewing and when the demand for robogate supervisors tails off and salaries start to lag, takes a Biotechnology Production course at the local tech., in his mid twenties. He fails to get a job in a real ale brewery and settles for a metal recycling plant near Scunthorpe rather than work for a synthetic beer factory.

In his late twenties he gets married, stops drinking and starts studying Production Control and Finance on an Open Tech course. It’s heavy going, and he doesn’t qualify till his mid-thirties, when he manages to get a job as deputy production controller of a cattle feed plant in Cheshire. He has worked his way up to production manager when he realises just before his 45th birthday that the plant will have to close because it cannot be adapted to meet the latest pollution control standards.

Unwilling to move, he takes a teacher training course and secures a part-time post at the local school teaching basic numeracy and industrial skills. He is elected to the local council, and with his attendance money and his wife’s earnings as a paramedic running the body scanners in the local Group Practice combined Health Centre, operating theatre and cottage hospital, he decides not to take another full-time job. In the school holidays he takes to studying Welsh History and at 55 graduates in Celtic Studies from the Open University of North Wales. At 60, when their last child leaves home, he and his wife buy a derelict hill farm in mid-Wales and he opens a holiday centre specialising in the development of the Welsh Longbow, in use and in literature.

Note that John retrains four times, none of them at his employer’s expense because each time he is going into a very different career; each time, partly because he is getting older and has more family commitments, it takes him longer, until his final academic, cum leisure cum retirement post. Note also that after his youthful job mobility, at 45 he settles for a collection of part-time sources of income, including teaching and social cum political activity, rather than disrupt his family life and move again.

This kind of multi-career life also requires major changes to our trades union structures, pension schemes and social security schemes to permit multiple job changes without loss of pension rights and to permit part-time work as a norm.

  1. Institutional Changes Needed

Unacademic John Dent spends more time in the educational system, both for business and for pleasure, after he has left school than even today’s academic high flyers. Therefore, unlike current and past generations of school leavers, he must enjoy it. One cannot drag London’s adult East Enders over the threshold of anything that looks like a school but house the establishment in a Portakabin or a Shack, give it a different name and ethos, and disassociate it from memories of pain and boredom, and they are often as eager as any child to learn new skills.

It is essential that the initial educational experience should be such that the student learns how to learn in a way that makes him associate education with reward and relevance, while at the same time he acquires the basic skills essential to all career structures.

Given that the bulk of the new jobs are being created in small businesses with neither the time nor the money to train school leavers in changing skills, and given that the schools have ten years of the individual’s best learning years, the school leaver should already have acquired most of the vocational skills and training necessary for his first career; a first career which is likely to begin at 16 or 17 and to involve a job in close proximity to the school. Therefore, much closer links between schools and local businesses, are necessary.

Whether these are fostered by cross secondments, use of part-time industrial staff for vocational training in schools, the recruitment only of teachers with outside work experience or sandwich courses for children, the current isolation has to be broken down.

Retraining at reasonable cost, social cost as well as economic cost, needs to be available at any stage of life, independent of the desires, means or needs of the current employers.

The kind of availability needed is possibly illustrated by the fate of an American steel company which gave notice of closure in a town where there was little alternative work for steel-workers. The sellers of retraining courses descended on the town like locusts and, although the company rescinded the closure notice, two years later it had to close because of shortage of labour. The workers had taken the message, retrained at their own expense and left for better, more secure, jobs.

We should not concentrate resources on those who are easiest to train, like the teenagers, at the cost of throwing later generations on the scrap heap, nor should we squander resources on the untrainable or those who wish to acquire skills not in demand, at someone else’s expense. When the taxpayers’ money is to be spent, priority should be given to retraining taxpayers or training their children for jobs in known demand. Exotic or esoteric subjects should be studied at private expense, not public.

A major shift in resources away from the 14 to 21 examination treadmill will be required as well as a massive shift from non-vocational to vocational education and from “offering” courses to meeting demands. Non-vocational education will largely become a leisure activity paid for by mature students out of past earnings rather than a middle class puberty rite at taxpayers’ expense.

For many subjects the student age range will rise from under 21 to over 60. Perhaps we should be looking to convert redundant Universities to Recreation and Leisure Schools or Industrial Training Centres depending on their location and facilities. It may well be that in twenty years’ time we will again have in Britain a dozen or so proper research-based endowment funded Universities and, hopefully, at least a dozen first class colleges or institutes of advanced technology funded largely by industry.

Second-rate institutions where University status and academic freedom have too often been an excuse for woolly thinking, inefficiency and futility will no longer be supported with public money. Good researchers and funding will be concentrated in centres of excellence. Competent teachers will be paid more to train for specific professional skills in Polytechnics and Colleges of Further Education, possibly linked in an Open Tech-like framework. The concept of the University as a home of learning and research for young and old alike, rather than an imitation polytechnic for adolescents, without the polytechnic discipline of defined educational objectives, will reign again.

Maybe that is a pipedream; however, a revolution in teaching techniques will certainly be required since current methods rely too heavily on the in-grained awe and academic docility of examination broken youth for them to work with the cynical maturity of the adult trainee. This together with the emphasis on learning how to learn, rather than mastery of any particular subject matter, may well lead to teaching and lecturing in most subjects being reserved as a second or third career so that mature students are taught by their peers. Given the use of packaged material, mastery of the subject will be less important than understanding of the learning experience, the ability to manage the learning environment and to motivate the student by sympathy, guidance and understanding – those attributes which the expert in his own subject has all too often lost. Teacher centred methods must be replaced by learner centred methods.

  1. How can the New Technologies help to meet this Fundamental Challenge?

At the simplest level, audio visual techniques enable the best lecturer or demonstrator to address an audience of thousands rather than a few dozen. A good video is very much more effective than an average teacher in one-way communication such as a lecture.

Freed from the pressure to prepare material to deliver to a timetable, the teacher can act as a tutor rather than a lecturer, advising which sources of information the individual student would find most helpful or relevant: videos, books, computer based simulators, and so on.

The simulations which are at the heart of many Computer Aided learning packages appear to improve greatly the motivation of students of all types. Good packages speed the assimilation of knowledge and understanding, facilitate the practice of techniques and of recall. They can also make formal examinations and the associated trauma unnecessary by testing the student’s understanding at each stage before he can move onto the next. Thus at the end of a CAL packaged course, each student has reached the same level of understanding, some more quickly than others. Packages enable the teacher to concentrate on his students as individuals, especially on their interpersonal abilities: for example, in group situations where the computer has set a task which requires a number of students to work in concert. The computer can be left to manage the task while the teacher concentrates on developing those skills and qualities which the computer cannot, such as the consideration of the feelings, motives and abilities of other people.

Learning can also take place at the student’s convenience; his choice of time, place and pace. Thus the part-time student can study the theory of genetic engineering in the Village School by night, using video and simulation packages with teleconference facilities for tutorials, while the pregnant teenager does remedial mathematics and babycare at home with a visiting teacher to keep up her morale.

Our current education system is “schooled” into subject areas, while life is not. The ability of the expert system to manage complexity makes it ideal for controlling multidisciplinary study projects crossing subject boundaries in a way which few teachers have the ability or knowledge to match. An example might be the complex inter-actions between economic growth, nutrition standards, mortality, mores and birth rates in the first industrial revolution. The medical ignorance of most historians, the cavalier way in which theoretical economists regard most historical evidence, the woolly thinking of most sociologists, and the lack of interest of most medical men, make this an area abounding in myth and nonsense. Such packages could be invaluable in broadening the outlook of our narrow specialists in both teaching and research.

Packages are labour intensive to specify and prepare and require much planning and discipline to assemble and test. However, two years and a million or so pounds to assemble quality packages which can then be mass produced on discs or transmitted over the air or down phone lines, is a lot faster and cheaper than retraining several thousand teachers over a decade or two. The comprehensive indexing of packages, learning and research should enable duplicated effort to be avoided, except when teams are sufficiently confident of the market need and their own competence to compete deliberately.

Given the PhD rat race and the scramble to publish, the effects of worldwide indexing and updating and the exchange of information over teleconference links could be interesting.  Will it actually lead to the free interchange of knowledge for the benefit of all, with an end to the desperate race to publish first in a prestige journal, leaving the losers to save face with duplicated variations and glosses in a plethora of obscure publications?  Probably not, unless reinforced by the turning off the tap of taxpayers’ monies, or the fear of public ridicule which can sometimes shame the most obstinate into changing their ways.

  1. Problems You Can Help Overcome?

The Japanese, like the Americans under Kennedy or our 0Victorian ancestors, succeed because they think they can. We are failing because we think we will. We do not suffer from lack of resources, we suffer from the fragmentation of those resources we have, the refusal to consider solutions we did not invent for ourselves, bureaucratic procedures and institutions which do not believe they can cope with change, an idiosyncratic examination system which reinforces the status quo and recruiters who have, for all too human reasons, given up trying to influence the systems they have to work with.

In all these areas the fear of public ridicule can be a potent weapon. Fear of the public exposure of wasted resources can often persuade a Local Authority to bring together Further Education, Polytechnic and School Resources to solve common problems in situations where rational arguments gets bogged down in red tape. The “Not Invented Here” syndrome can equally be countered in a time of financial stringency by forcing the public cost-justification of each attempt to re-invent the wheel.

Institutional resistance is harder to overcome; of course, an Authority with a large Architects Department and a militant bunch of maintenance men and caretakers will seek to spend more on buildings than on books or teaching aids.  Or course teachers will seek to impart to others the subjects they know. Of course, examiners will seek to preserve the status quo.

Consumer revolt, whether on the part of parents, taxpayer, student or recruiter, is one weapon capable of over-coming institutional resistance in the long run. But it can be a very wasteful mechanism. Waiting for Encylopaedia Britannica or Time-Life to fill the gap with packages sold direct to parents or mature students is not the best way, unless we really believe that American methods are so superior that we cannot catch up.

Subversion is likely to be far more efficient. Demonstrating to the teachers that copying material produced elsewhere, perhaps even paying copyright fees, that prostituting academic freedom in return for gifts of equipment, books and visits, that adopting commercial rather than academic norms can greatly ease their problems, will encourage them to change the system from within. Demonstrating that interesting relevant packages can make a class of unacademic delinquents an acceptable challenge rather than a futile trial of strength will encourage the teachers to fight the waste of resources on bricks and mortar, and get the money spent on teaching aids, and material instead.

In Japan the Universities are showered with gifts of money and equipment by employers, not because they value University research – they do not – but because they want recruits trained to their standards. Our employers must adopt similar tactics, not just in dealing with Universities but with schools and colleges at all levels. Because of the difficulties on both sides, and the cultural gulf that exists, they need all the encouragement they can get through publicity and praise for successful case studies of co-operation (as in the Japanese press); case studies which emphasise the direct selfish benefits to both parties as much as the long term benefits for the students. The Marconi-sponsored MSc course at Southampton is one example. I am sure Sperry can cite examples in which they have taken a similar lead.

Finally, recruiters who buck the system and retest applicants or select for deviance, rejecting the validity of examination results or who offer inflation adjusted pension transfer rights or payments to independent pension schemes, should receive praise and publicity for their initiative in helping to change the system. The docility of the recruiters merely serves to reinforce the complacency of the examiners that they are imposing the correct quality control procedures on the rest of the system.  A revolt among the recruiters, fomented by the press, could well be the fastest way of securing rapid and far-reaching change.


Much of this thesis may be wrong (forecasters such as myself are very content if they are right more than half the time). One thing of which I am certain is that rapid and far-reaching changes in our educational systems at every level are essential. Throwing money at the system will probably serve to delay those changes, while financial crisis and constructive publicity for the alternatives may well help to promote them.

= = =

Written for presentation in 1982 to the cream of the British technical  press, bribed, like the other speakers and myself, with  nearly a week of fabulous hospitality in Sperry’s International Management Centre at St Paul-de-Vence near Nice.

August 17, 2017  10:08 AM

Removing Digital from the Pointless Ponzi Skills scheme

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
apprenticeships, Skills

The Election Campaign revealed the unpopularity of the Student Loan scheme with students and parents. The Apprenticeship Levy scheme, at least in its current state, is equally unpopular with employers. At the time of the election I summarised the references to skills in the campaign as a competition between a manifesto for skills and jobs and one for debt and unemployment.

Today the Prime Ministers former advisor has described the loan-funded, fixed standard tuition fee, full-time degree system as a pointless Ponzi scheme . Yesterday it was announced that Learn Direct, the largest supplier of Government funded apprenticeship programmes is being wound down after a damning Ofsted review.

Meanwhile Brexit and the pressure to reduce reliance on imported skills have added urgency to the  need to bring the UK’s obsolete and introverted education and training systems into the 21st century, reforming approaches to academic funding mechanisms dating back to 1917 – when we were supposedly behind Germany in the scientific research needed for modern warfare (e.g. poison gas).

Today the availability of MOOCs and modular materials, courses and assessments, from a wide range of suppliers, for most of the skills in current demand has changed the way leading employers develop the skills of their existing employees and new recruits: cutting “time to competence” from years to months, months to weeks and weeks to days. This, in turn,  has changed the economics behind the decision to poach/import supposedly skilled staff, as opposed to redeploying existing staff or training raw talent. It is increasingly often quicker and cheaper to train your own, to known standards, that to retrain those who skills, you belatedly discover, exist only on paper.

Nearly 30 Universities are now working with employers on degree-linked digital apprenticeships via the Tech Partnership alone. But many current apprenticeship programmes are constrained by the need to fit UK-centric, semi-academic funding frameworks. Most digital skills are global and it is essential that public funds are used to improve access for the disadvantaged to the internationally recognised certifications recognised by employers and regulators.

The Institute for Apprenticeships is working on streamlining the processes for the grant and levy system and wants these to be employer driven – not set by intermedaries. At a recent meeting, Digital Policy Alliance members, including some of main suppliers of globally recognised digital qualifications, volunteered information on how they consult employers on new qualifications and, equally importantly, regular reviews and updates, as well as on how they quality control delivery and certification. Hopefully it will be possible to organise similar inputs for those deciding how to use the income from Tier 2 visas in skills shortage areas to encourage employers looking to import skills to reduce the need by improving local supply to meet their needs.

We need exploit the opportunity to identify and publicise practical ways forward before policies for the next election campaign are confirmed. We need to ensure they are much better, and better publicised, than those for the recent snap election

Subsequent to a meetings with the Minister and the IfA team, a draft Digital Policy Alliance paper was produced on the skills policies needed to create and maintain a 21st Century Digital Infrastructure.   The second iteration is currently being circulated to DPA members in advance of a formal review meeting. A prime focus is on how to ease the pain of transitioning to high quality, degree-linked, digital apprenticeships for the skills in current and future demand: “get three years ahead in your career not a debt and a 10% tax hike”.

The overall objective of the DPA 21st Century Skills  group is “to help pull forward the changes necessary to cater for a world in which demand for basic aptitudes, attitudes and disciplines changes slowly, if at all, but the rate of change in demand for specific skills is accelerating”. The strategy is not just to produce yet more papers on skills shortages – but to actively engage politicians (local and national) and major employers (who are also prestigious research partners) in partnerships to produce and publicise practical results so that consensus can be built around what is shown to not only work but give commercial benefit to those putting in the effort.

Two years ago I blogged on an exercise to brief MPs on the need to look at skills issues through the other end of the telescope and get engaged with local exercises to pull the threads together. Earlier this year the first local skills partnership was agreed, after a meeting to help launch Stem Plymouth (at the heart of the 2020 Anglo-American celebration of the Pilgrim Fathers voyage into the unknown to invent the future they wanted to see). It was then agreed that the initial focus would be on security skills – as the area with supposedly the most critical shortfall.

Four months later, at the formal launch of the Plymouth Security Skills Partnership,  the lead  project, a shared Security Operation Centre which provides supervised work experience for  pupils, students, trainees and apprentices, using leading edge tools on real problems, was live. It already provides a unique (cost and availability to local SMEs) service to help organisation identify which of their clients are at most risk (e.g. the information available to impersonate them, including passwords,  is available on the Dark Web).

It showed that the approach works – given active co-operation between City, University, Employers (both public and private sector) to work with schools, colleges and law enforcement. But Plymouth had a tradition of such co-operation going back over five years (apparently beginning with construction skills) on which we could build.

The report of the launch event, including the discussion of issues arising and lessons learned is being sent to those invited to the first review meeting (on 12th September – during Cyber Security Week) of the Digital Policy Alliance Security Skills sub-group. A key messages is that most attempts at co-operation are blighted by those put political positioning and competition for public funding ahead of delivering results – whether for students, victims or paying customers. The follow up will therefore focus on projects and cities/regions where such rivalry can be avoided.

Those who wish to receive a copy of the report and/or details on the programme to build on success should contact the Digital Policy Alliance.


July 14, 2017  5:38 PM

Fake News – The Movie

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Facebook, fake news, ISOC, Snapchat

A video of yesterdays ISOC England round table on Fake News is now available on-line. It is unedited and therefore begins, as do most webcast events, with some embarrassing technical problems but stay with it. It was a good disucssion, ably stirred by Maria Farrell with points emerging that I have not heard at all before, let alone juxtaposed.  In my own first slot I reprised the arguments in my previous blog on the subject but by the end of the round table my views regarding the points of leverage had moved on – partly in the light of what I heard from my fellow panelists, but also as a result of points made by a very well-informed audience, some of whom had serious skin in the game . I apologise for grinning at the camera and thus giving the idea that I thought the topic a big joke. Some subjects, like religion, are too serious to be taken seriously. You end up either crying or wanting to kill some-one. I also apologise for getting the numbers wrong in my off-the-cuff illustration of how modern day fake news kills.

What should you watch out for in “Fake News: the Movie”?

Karim Palant gave a very measured account of Facebook Policy which left me wondering what more we really want them to do. The idea of Facebook (or its lawyers or a panel of “the great and the good”) acting as a censor, deciding what should be carried, left me cold. I prefer the view that they improve their processes for rapid response to well-founded (???) complaints and better enforce their own terms and conditions, plus their obligations under the e-commerce directive.

Dominic Connor described the squeeze on “professional” journalists. On-line news services commonly receive less than 10 – 15% of what well-known brands pay to have their products and services advertised alongside breaking news. ISPs, Search Engines and the many and various Ad Tech “intermediaries” take the other 85 – 90%. Meanwhile the increasing pressure to be first in an on-line environment means that those who pause to check the provenance of the story do not get the clicks.

After Dominic’s comments my perception of the reasons for the rising tide of palpably fake news began to change. Most is driven by the business models of the $16 billion pay-per-click adtech fraud industry. The Macedonian teenagers who concocted the fake news stories about Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump monitored which headlines got the most clicks. They then produced more of the same. Most of us cannot tell the difference between fake and real by looking at the supposed source of the story. We are lured into fake-news sites (e.g. imitations of MSN News) via links to apparently reasonable stories and then led onto the bizarre. Meanwhile the next generation is no better than us at telling what is for real. Lacking experience of past propaganda they may be even more gullible.

But a collapse in confidence is imminent. Diageo, Jaguar or Proctor and Gamble may not be too worried about fake political news – but they are concerned when their adverts appear alongside the Jihadist videos and Porn which collect clicks from under-age teenagers.  Hence the pressures on Google, Facebook and Twitter to prevent pay-per-click ad fraud from killing the geese that lay their golden eggs.  That priority indicates the approaches we can expect them to take – beginning with trying to use technology to identify and block the 60-70% of traffic generated by botnets at the same time as making it easier for legitimate users to report abuse.

That leaves us with “traditional”, non-automated fake news, including the gulf in “perceptions of reality” between the Internet Digerati (a subset of the Western Liberal Elite) and the majority of humanity. It was during an exchange over who was telling the truth and who was censoring who with regard to Brexit, that I had a second revelation: about how that gulf had opened up in the UK. [In the UK it is between the Metropolitan elites and the rest. In the US it is more between the outward looking Coastal elites and the introverted, rust bucket, middle].

In the UK a combination of the BBC and The Internet wiped out the local newspapers which used to train English journalists to understand and reflect the prejudices of their readers, as opposed to those of the politically correct, liberal, metropolitan elite. In parallel we have seen the opening up of  gaps in the ability to share news and views (whether true or false) over social media: e.g. between students with gigabit services on campus, middle class teenagers with passable broadband to their smart phones and socially deprived NEETs, stuck with “crap (copper, rust, aluminum and other pollutants) band” and notspots in inner cities and rural areas.

Most of the older age groups never did believe what the London newspapers and BBC told them. Meanwhile backbench MPs worried more about what their constituency newspapers said than the Times or the Guardian. Now the local newsprint that helped us understand regional differences has gone. We are left with an illusion of homogeneity plus a reliance on-line social media, with its susceptibility to being overwhelmed by botnet multiplied news and views from “who knows who …”  The success of Daesh in using on-line media to recruit disaffected youth illustrates the vulnerability of Western Society to a latter day Goebbels. The appeal of Pied Piper politics to those with no memory of the socialist dictatoriat (both central and local government)  of the 1960s and 1970s is no Fake News joke.

My concluding remarks came after those of Gabrielle Guillemin, of Article 19. The last time I appeared on a platform with some-one from Article 19 was back in 2000, at an event hosted by the Freedom Forum when the topic was “What Price Freedom?” To my surprise the transcript is still available on-line . My comments show their age. I then expected CISCO and IBM to support secure walled gardens. I was, however, all too right about the inability of law enforcement to respond. I was also right about authentication and identity being the key. But I predicted e-zombie status (i.e. no credit) for those insisting on anonymity.  I did not foresee the number of operations offering anonymity for automated money laundering services, using a variety of technologies, not just bitcoin. One of the tragedies is, however, that the linked anonymity services are being used by national security agencies to track those who think they cannot be identified.

One of the most perceptive comments at the ISOC event was from a 14 year old whose main fear was that his secure anonymous persona might be linked to his home address and some-one would come round to beat him up.  It was interesting to link his concerns to those of parents or police which I reflected in my recent Snapchat blog. 

Meanwhile Joanna Kulesza, who introduced the discussion was disappointed that there was not more discussion on algorithms. I think that after two hours we deserved a drink – but this does indeed deserve a discussion of it own – including, of course, the fake news about the assumptions behind them, how they behave in consequence, who is competent to use them, let alone interpret the results and so on. As a sometime student of Andrew Ehrenberg (who described the American approach to modelling as the scientification of non-knowledge)   I used to be expert in unraveling complex algorithms to reveal the two or three unknowable assumptions on which they depended. But now my brain hurts when I try. I will leave that meeting to others – I simply ask who gets sued if the consequences of believing in the “answers” turns out to be disastrously wrong.





Page 1 of 10012345...102030...Last »

Forgot Password

No problem! Submit your e-mail address below. We'll send you an e-mail containing your password.

Your password has been sent to: