We are the champions, my friends

We are the champions, my friends

I spent the last two weeks in a bucolic idyll in the foothills of the Pyrenees—fields of sunflowers and lavender, salt of the earth rustics and haystacks straight out of a Millet painting. I write that not to engender any sort of envy (parenthetically, I'll mention that it was around 35 degrees every day and the excellent local wine costs €3 a bottle). But the bulk of my holiday was spent off grid—no internet access at the rural farmhouse I was staying at, the patchiest of mobile reception, and given O2's extortionate roaming charges (£3 per mb!), if I was able to get a 3G signal, there was no way I would log on to the web or get my emails.

So it was a bit amusing that one of the first big news stories I noticed on my return was the launch at Number 10 Downing Street of dot-com gazillionaire and 'Uk Digital Champion' Martha Lane Fox's (pictured) government backed Manifesto for a Networked Nation. When I say government-backed, I mean backed in the sense that they think that getting some of Britain's over 10m non-internet users online is a jolly good idea, as long as no money is spent. For all the concrete policy-backed proposals in the document, David Cameron and Lane Fox could just as well have been proposing that Britain establish a colony on Mars. Which would be a jolly good idea, too, if it didn't cost any money.

The Manifesto itself is, as my dear old grandpappy used to say, quite a bit of horse hockey. Very ropey, speculative and sometimes spurious statistics about the benefits of going online. A typical one: There are 1.8bn contacts between the public and government services per year, of which 20% are online, with the off-line contacts costing between £3-£12 more each. The manifesto chirps: "If every currently offline adult moved just one contact a month with government online then we would save an estimated £900m per annum". Yes, maybe...but that excludes the considerable cost of setting the back office online structure up, of running it, of repairing it when it goes wrong. My GP surgery has a number of its services online; which invariably force me to call up and speak to a person to correct after its computer system crashes.

The bottom line of the manifesto is that it says that older people and the economically disadvantaged are the ones who are largely disintermediated. Wow. Coloured me surprised. You mean people who didn't grow up on the internet, or who are having trouble getting food on the table are not spunking money on iPads? The irritating thing about the manifesto is that, particularly in the case of the disadvantaged, it suggests this is causal: people are poor because they are not online. This is, as my old grandpappy also used to say, ass-backwards. No, they are poor, that is why they are not online.

If the government was truly serious about a digital future it would, to paraphrase Tony Blair, be tough on non-internet usage, and tough on the causes of non-internet usage. That means increase money on education and poverty relief (which it will be reducing). And, crucially, digital infrastructure. The Tories have pledged to make UK the superfast broadband leader of Europe. It has a long way to go: a Cisco/Saïd Business School study last year showed that broadband speeds in the UK were in 17th place in Europe and 25th globally, trailing the likes of Latvia and Slovenia (the Republic of Ireland is in 16th place worldwide). Most estimates for the public expenditure to bring the UK to the top of that table hover around £300m for the next three years. Money George Osborne may be reluctant to part with.

So does the Manifesto amount to a whole lot of nothing? Not exactly. Lane Fox is smart enough to know that she is up against it in terms of the government releasing any money to back up digital plans. She has admitted as much on her Twitter feed that she sees herself more a voice to keep digital on the government's agenda. In fact, the pure books angle in the report chimes with her own role: it suggests that each local library by the end of 2010 appoint a digital champion to facilitate web training, and signpost and market libraries' digital activities. Whether this will actually come to fruition at the local level, given how strapped library staffing levels are at the moment, is a concern. But the overall point is sound. Getting libraries to talk about digital more, to introduce customers to (free at user level) digital books, will only help the book trade and expand readership. But the bottom line remains: if the government really thinks digital helps the economy, it will eventually need to dig deeper into its pockets.