In Rishi Sunak’s cabinet reshuffle on 7 February 2023, the subdivision known as Digital, from the former culture ministry (Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – DCMS), was transferred to a new department for Science, Innovation and Technology (SIT).
I have grumbled before about the misuse of the word digital to label a small office in a government ministry. Digital is an adjective, not a noun. Almost anything can be described as ‘digital’. Bureaucrats like to use it as a noun to refer collectively to the digital industries, such as the social media, in which case to transfer them from culture to science and technology is even stranger. Are we asked to assume that human communication is a subsection of artificial intelligence (AI)?
Conflict of interest
I can understand the organisational motive. The new SIT minister, Michelle Donelan MP, was the former DCMS secretary of state. She was in the process of piloting the online safety bill through parliament, charting a narrow course between downright censorship and protecting the vulnerable. This was the wrong moment to hand over a delicate and controversial matter to the incoming DCMS secretary of state, Lucy Frazer MP.
At the same time, Donelan was presented with an awkward conflict of interest. As the minister for SIT, she was expected to promote the digital industries, and not to hold them back with tricky questions about content, etc. Where would it end? A bill intended to protect children from online porn might uncover other abuses as well, such as fake facts and dummy websites. If she were asked to monitor the wild west of the internet, and draft some new rules to regulate it, she could wave farewell to all her other tasks. Innovation? Pshaw!
In any case, where did the digital industries most appropriately belong – within a hi-tech department, or side by side with the arts and the press in something called ‘culture’? Donelan’s task will not be helped by the fact that senior members of her own political tribe, Nadim Zahawi MP and Rishi Sunak MP, two ex-chancellors of the exchequer, one current PM, derived their enormous wealth through their family connections to companies formed during the gold-rush years of the digital industries, from 1990 to 2010.
Her plight has been made even more gut-wrenching by the fact that – and here some readers may wish to avert their eyes – these companies are not exactly British at all, but registered in places like Gibraltar and Bangalore, and beyond her jurisdiction. Poor Michelle!
Here, there or anywhere
That is the trouble with the digital industries. They can be anywhere or nowhere. They can float around on a cloud or sit on the desk with the rest of the clutter. Nor is it easy to describe what they do. According to the website for InfoSys (assets of US$100bn+, whose founder and CEO is Narayan Murthy, Sunak’s father-in-law), it offers wide-ranging services as a global adviser on more or less everything. It provides a “thought-leadership platform”, part Einstein, part Mystic Meg.
The company was founded in 1981 by seven IT engineers in Pune with $250 dollars to invest. It rose to be listed as InfoSys on the international stock exchanges in 2004. This follows the pattern of similar companies. They thrived by bringing together the smaller computerised systems that had developed in banking, commercial investment and the social services.
Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues at CERN (the European Centre for Nuclear Research) developed the World Wide Web in 1989, went public in 1993 and offered an “universal linked information system” as a gift to humanity. It provided the basis for other browsers, including Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which was the market leader for 14 years.
Too many facts
The problem with information was that there was just too much of it. Facts were everywhere: useful facts, useless ones, facts modified to fit in with other facts, fake facts and, of course, statistics. The browsers had to be selective to pick out the facts that you wanted to know from all the rest. This became another boom industry.
Fortunately, it was possible to simplify the process by connecting the data-gathering companies with those that tracked humanoid habits. In 1990, the Behavioural Dynamics Institute was formed from a group of researchers at London University, led by Nigel Oakes, which grew into (according to its website) “the leading international centre of excellence for research and development into persuasion and social influence”.
An associate was the Strategic Communications Laboratory (SCL), owned by the Mercer family, which in 2005 displayed its services at the Defence and Security International Exhibition, “the UK’s largest showcase for military technology”. SCL specialised in military disinformation, but its skills could be applied to politics or any other marketing. It was the parent of Cambridge Analytica, which helped Trump’s bid in the 2016 US presidential election and the Vote Leave campaign in the UK, winning two large cups for the mantelpiece.
Cambridge Analytica claimed to have influenced elections in Italy, Latvia, Ukraine, Albania, Romania and some 25 other countries; but the shine was taken off its multitude of silverware, when it was revealed that it had stolen more than 50 million personal records from Facebook, clearly a criminal action. It went into liquidation. Reputable firms do not behave like that. They buy up smaller companies to obtain their records legally.
InfoSys, for example, bought Lodestone Holding AG, established in Zurich, for US$350mn in 2012, and transformed it into Lodestone Advisory Group in 2013, with its new headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee. It is a “boutique” management consultancy, providing “cutting edge thought-leadership”, adding more names to InfoSys’s already impressive family list of cutting-edge world thought-leaders.
YouGov, a polling company founded by Stephan Shakespeare and Nadim Zahawi in 2000, rose to its powerful position in the market by acquiring Politimetrix, a US management consultancy in 2007, and Galaxy Research, a similar firm from Australia, in 2017. Zahawi resigned as its CEO in 2010, when he became a Conservative MP, because he sensitively realised that some would suspect that there might be a conflict of interest between his role as a politician and the head of a supposedly neutral market research company.
For similar reasons, his 42.5% stake in the company was held not by him personally, but by a trust, Balshore Investments Ltd, based in Gibraltar (an offshore tax haven), whose directors included Zahawi’s father. These beneficial arrangements caught the attention of the British press at an awkward time when Zahawi happened to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. According to the Guardian (4 January, 2017) Balshore lent him money, not disclosed to the tax authorities, and deducting it from their dividends.
Science or culture?
This brings us back to the first riddle. Should YouGov, InfoSys and similar companies be listed in the government’s portfolio as ‘science’ or ‘culture’? The answer lies somewhere in the outer reaches of philosophy. Do we regard humankind as sophisticated robots, whose future behaviour can be predicted from previous evidence, or are we conscience-stricken individuals, who are trying to make up our minds as to what we should do next?
An eminent Victorian mathematician, Charles Dodgson, gave us his verdict, disguised within a book for children, Alice in Wonderland. Writing under a pseudonym, Lewis Carroll, he imagined a young girl, code-named Alice, alone in a room with a large table, where there was a digital cake, which said “Eat me!”
If she nibbled one side, she grew fantastically tall, very quickly, and could survey humanity from an immense height, all those little figures, smaller than insects, scuttling around. If she nibbled the other, she shrank to insignificance, merely some recurring number on a digital spreadsheet.
“Curiouser and curiouser”, said Alice, forgetting her grammar. Her real name may have been Michelle MP.