Lord Howell: The Future is The Edge of Now

ATCA Briefings

London, UK - 9 July 2007, 08:25 GMT - We are grateful to The Lord Howell of Guildford, based at The Palace of Westminster, London, for "The Future is The Edge of Now -- Grasping The Internet Revolution links The Rest" in response to the ATCA think piece, "The Future of the Global Internet Economy."

intentBlog: Lord Howell: The Future is The Edge of Now

Dear ATCA Colleagues

[Please note that the views presented by individual contributors are not necessarily representative of the views of ATCA, which is neutral. ATCA conducts collective Socratic dialogue on global opportunities and threats.]

The Right Honourable Lord (David) Howell of Guildford, President of the British Institute of Energy Economics, is a former Secretary of State for Energy and for Transport in the UK Government and an economist and journalist. Lord Howell is Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords and Conservative Spokesman on Foreign Affairs. He also Chairs the Windsor Energy Group. Until 2002 he was Chairman of the UK-Japan 21st Century Group, (the high level bilateral forum between leading UK and Japanese politicians, industrialists and academics), which was first set up by Margaret Thatcher and Yasuhiro Nakasone in 1984. In addition he writes a fortnightly column for The JAPAN TIMES in Tokyo, and has done so since 1985. He also writes regularly for the International Herald Tribune. David Howell was the Chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1987-97. He was Chairman of the House of Lords European Sub-Committee on Common Foreign and Security Policy from 1999-2000. In 2001 he was awarded the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Sacred Treasure (Japan). His latest book, 'Out of the Energy Labyrinth' has been described as 'a serious and thoughtful attempt to grapple with the complexities of the energy challenge and foreign policy', by James R Schlesinger, and as 'a terrific book, not least because of its topicality' by Sir Simon Jenkins. He writes:

Dear DK and Colleagues

Re: The Future is The Edge of Now -- Grasping The Internet Revolution links The Rest

I would like to comment on this very lucid ATCA summary of the impact of the internet and the informational revolution, which, as you say, is 'only now' beginning to be grasped by the world. The words 'only now' have considerable import because, without being a 'I-told-you-so' bore, almost all these developments, good and bad, were predicted in my book, The Edge of Now, written in the late nineties and published in 2000. But I in turn must concede that I drew heavily in writing that work on the amazing Manuel Castells, whose three-volume opus on The Rise of the Network Society, although first published in 1996/7, remains far the most prescient and comprehensive analysis of the impact of the new information technologies on every aspect of our lives and the world around us.

Castells begins Volume One with these two magnificent sentences (at the time widely dismissed as being 'over the top', but turning out to be totally accurate): "Towards the end of the second millennium of the Christian Era several events of historical significance have transformed the social landscape of human life. A technological revolution, centred round information technologies, is reshaping, at accelerated pace, the material basis of society'. Like Confucius, he had 'simply grasped one thread which links up the rest'

The ATCA summary superbly encapsulates the stage we have now reached -- already changed beyond recognition in almost every respect, both personal and public, from the early years of the micro-chip age. Not only has the international 'order' if you can call it that, started to operate completely differently (with which even now few foreign policy analysts, and even fewer policy-makers, have caught up). Being born, living, loving and dying have all changed. Language has changed; relationships have changed, and in the public space the whole process of politics has changed.

The ATCA comment admirably balances the bad news and the good news. As foreseen a decade ago the internet has duly empowered groups of zealots, with fearsome results, weakening governments and yet enabling them to be more intrusive. It has 'increased substantially' civic engagement yet at the same time made it 'difficult or impossible to develop meaningful consensus on public problems.'

This is spot on. Let's just think for a moment what that implies. It means that tens (perhaps hundreds) of millions of people round the planet have been politicised but that the governing processes of decision-making have not. Every cause, every lobby, every individual passion gets an airing, with bitterness and dismay when this cause or that, now e-expanded by massive electronic petitions and public space webs, fails to achieve its aims or comes up against equally mass-based lobbying in the opposite direction.
What the newly empowered millions, with their 'flash constituencies' and super-blogs, have not yet understood (because nobody has explained) is that the process of reconciling different interests is inevitably complex, obscure and frustrating, with inevitable losers and winners.

Gordon Brown and others talk of a loss of trust in politics and seek to meet it by more open procedures. But they will never be able to duck the responsibility in the end to weave together, often with necessary secrecy, the compromises, deals and rejections, disappointments and rewards which make stable government possible without violence.

What these leaders have also to explain, if indeed they have yet grasped it themselves, is that the power and capacity of central governments to settle these conflicts of interest and ambition, whether local, national or international, have been hugely reduced by the pervasive internet and the dispersal of power, both soft and hard, to markets, to non-state groups, to lobbies and to individuals which the micro-chip has brought about. To govern in these infinitely more difficult circumstances requires new and subtle techniques for handling issues that few governments have yet mastered and for which the old institutions of the 20th century are peculiarly unsuitable.

In these institutions I certainly include our funny old political parties, behemoths of mass organization left over from the 19th and 20th centuries and now poorly adapted to the new conditions which connect people and debate and issues in entirely new ways. Even the party language sounds quaint and out of date, such as 'the need to move to the centre'. 'the need for unity' and other metaphors from a past organizational age.

It will dawn, but has not yet, that in the age of the world wide web the search for 'the centre ground' is like the search for the Snark. There is no longer any such thing. There may be certain directions of thought and perception to be divined, but that requires quite different and novel methods and leadership.

One can lift this whole analysis on to the international scene where the same deep misapprehensions apply -- most obviously the Washington delusion that power still equates with bigness and with thirteen carrier fleets and 2000 missiles, and can be used to export certain values and processes to other regions. Even if that was ever correct, and perhaps it once was, the age of the internet has made it totally invalid. But this raises much broader issues and I will stop here in the hope that these comments provide a few morsels of food for thought within the ATCA community.

David Howell


We look forward to your further thoughts, observations and views. Thank you.

Best wishes

For and on behalf of DK Matai, Chairman, Asymmetric Threats Contingency Alliance (ATCA)

ATCA: The Asymmetric Threats Contingency Alliance is a philanthropic expert initiative founded in 2001 to resolve complex global challenges through collective Socratic dialogue and joint executive action to build a wisdom based global economy. Adhering to the doctrine of non-violence, ATCA addresses asymmetric threats and social opportunities arising from climate chaos and the environment; radical poverty and microfinance; geo-politics and energy; organised crime & extremism; advanced technologies -- bio, info, nano, robo & AI; demographic skews and resource shortages; pandemics; financial systems and systemic risk; as well as transhumanism and ethics. Present membership of ATCA is by invitation only and has over 5,000 distinguished members from over 100 countries: including several from the House of Lords, House of Commons, EU Parliament, US Congress & Senate, G10's Senior Government officials and over 1,500 CEOs from financial institutions, scientific corporates and voluntary organisations as well as over 750 Professors from academic centres of excellence worldwide.

The views presented by individual contributors are not necessarily representative of the views of ATCA, which is neutral. Please do not forward or use the material circulated without permission and full attribution.

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