Tom Lean: "If I Ruled the World..."

Tom Lean

Tom Lean—technology historian, and author of Electronic Dreams: How 1980's Britain Learned to Love the Computer—tells us what he would changed if he ruled the world. Sounds like a great place to be, Tom!

I would make access to the internet a basic human right

Over four billion people, more than half the population of the planet, have no access to the internet. If a networked world is the future as more services shift online, then its vital that everyone is allowed to participate.

Set against the vital things, like food and water, internet access probably seems trivial, but it could be fundamental to making the world a better place. It's already made such a difference to the developed world, just think of the all the positive effects that access to education, health information, business opportunities, and everything could bring to places that seriously lack these things.

Access to diverse sources of information and the ability for anybody to make their voice heard can protect freedom of speech and human rights, and gives a chance to hold government and corporations to account.

You can never really predict what people will do with technology, but once they've got it they tend to apply it in ways that matter to them, and rolling out internet access to everyone could unleash some incredible creativity in ways we've never considered.

 

I would allow everyone the chance to record and archive an interview about their life

The joy of working as an oral historian over several years, is that everyone I meet to interview, no matter what they have done with their lives, has a story to tell.

Often those who tell you at the start that they don't have much to say can tell you the most incredible things that would be lost to history otherwise. Memories are precious things. We spend our whole lives accumulating them but when we're gone so are they.

I think saving a few of them is a wonderful gift to help future generations understand the past. Just think how interesting it would be to hear an ancestor talking about the things they had done; just think of passing that opportunity on to one of your great-great-great-grandchildren.

 

I'd put a lot more funding into space exploration

It's not just because I read quite a lot of science fiction. As a species we're trapped on a small rock floating through space. If something goes wrong with that, such as environmental collapse or meteor strike, then we're finished.

It's in our long-term best interests to find a way off this planet and start making new homes for ourselves around the universe. But that's a long-term goal, in the shorter term the benefits to our understanding of how the universe works and from spin-off technologies could be considerable.

From satellite television and GPS location mapping, to weather forecasting and new materials, it's surprising how much many of us already use space in our daily lives without even thinking about it.

 

I'd increase the opportunities people have

Looking back on the recent past, I think it's becoming clear to everyone that the Baby Boomer generation blossomed from their access to some incredible opportunities.

Free university education, access to affordable housing, generous pension provision, free healthcare, secure employment, and other factors provided opportunities unheard of to previous generations and helped raise standards of living all around.

Sadly as the world has changed those opportunities have dried up for those born in more recent years. I'd find new ways to give later generations equivalent opportunities, it's the only way to create a fairer world.

 

I'd alter our relationship with new technology

I read daily how automation and new computing systems are going to change the way we live, as an information and automation revolution sweeps across the world, potentially making millions unemployed and perhaps leading to world without work. We've been here before.

Back in the 1970s, the advent of the microprocessor and other microchips brought similar prophecies, which have yet to fully come to pass. But with a 21st century “fourth industrial revolution” apparently looming, it is time to rethink how oursocieties relate to the smart machines.

I'd encourage better education to help people make use of new technology, because there are opportunities here as well as threats, if people are able to grasp them. To cover the issues with technological unemployment, I'd introduce a Universal Basic Income, an unconditional allowance paid to everyone to cover the basic necessities of life.

It wouldn't stop anyone doing another job, but it would help ease the transition into a world where many people will have to work differently, and ensure that the benefits of this more efficient world are shared. Indeed, letting the machines do the drudgery might free people to do something more creative, entrepreneurial, or fulfilling for themselves rather than just being wage slave.

Tom Lean is a technology historian and the author of Electric Dreams: How 1980s Britain Learned to Love the Computer.