We should use IT to set us Free - not to give others control over us 16th May 2007

All modern inventions can be used for the advantage or the disadvantage of mankind. Advances in medical science, for example, can be used to cure previously uncurable diseases, but they can also be used to generate deadly viruses which could be used to massacre millions.  Advances in physics have brought amazing benefits, but they have also produced the spectre of the Atom bomb. And the same applies to the advances in modern communications, including information technology.


PC’s have revolutionised the way we live and do business. We can do now what we could only have dreamed of in the past. At a click of a mouse, graphs, reports and tables can be assembled from raw data within seconds, photographs can be inserted, and then the finished article can be  transmitted to a printing press for immediate publication as promotional material. Gone is all the necessity for careful planning in advance: it is possible to respond to events as and when they happen.


Anybody can set up their own website at very little expense and publish whatever they like on it. Gone is the necessity to court a publisher. If your website is any good, it will come up on a website search engine for anybody who happens to be looking. Gone is the need for encyclopaedias and long research in rare journals. It is a wonderful liberating experience.


But like every other technological advance, there is a down side. Computers can hold massive quantities of data. Government legislation can require this data to be transmitted to Government computers, so that Whitehall can see what is going on all over the country in every possible area in which it has an interest, and the information need never be much out of date. This may be good for Whitehall decision makers, but, if knowledge is power, this kind of technology also gives governments the ability to control our lives in ways which has never before been possible. The Orwellian nightmare (which did not happen in 1984) becomes something to worry about.


So, I worry when people say the world has changed as a result of information technology and that that change justifies a modification of the democratic process. This I understand is one of the reasons given for the outrageous bid of North Yorkshire County Council to take over the running of Ryedale and other districts. As so much information can be made instantly available, the need for local democracy is diminished to the point of extinction: County is now in a position to make decisions on local matters, as never before.


Now, if County are right about this (and I am not saying they are), the question arises as to whether this can possibly justify the loss of local democracy, which the County bid entails – there will be half the number of elected representatives as there are under the current arrangements, and Ryedale will have 12 representatives in a County Council with 144 members.


In my view, the fact that central government or County Council may be able to exercise greater control over local decision making cannot be a reason for doing away with the local decision making apparatus. Clearly there has to be a balance, and the best people to make local decisions are local people – not mandarins in Whitehall or officials in Northallerton. It used to be said that local government was organised so as to ensure that all decisions are taken at the lowest practicable administrative level – from the bottom up and not the top down. Isn’t this the basic ingredient of democracy? By removing an administrative tier of elected democracy, as is proposed, decision making is moved upwards and taken further away from local people. The proposal is anti-democratic.


So what then is the significance of information technology on government? We live in a democracy. We have a choice of using IT either to give government more control over our lives, or to enrich our freedom by giving us the data which will set us free to make our own local decisions on a fully informed basis.


I choose freedom and local democracy


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