Online at the Guardian: make me the internet tsar! And educate our children

Possibly not widely noticed, but every Friday I have an online-only column at the Guardian’s Technology pages.

Last Friday I wrote about the marvellous phone call that I got from a PR company touting a “survey” (oh yes…) which said that people thought the internet is “too big” and has “too many search engines”.

Well, imagine that. What’s the solution? Why, stop its growth, right here and now. Put someone in charge of making sure this untrammeled broadening ends right here. Peoples’ peace of mind is at stake! Make me the tsar:

Yet the idea is a fascinating one, isn’t it? What if the internet actually did have a size limit. The other day some companies suggested that internet capacity will hit some sort of size limit by 2010. (Note that date: as all reporters know, 2010 is the sort of date that’s “close enough to worry, far enough away that we won’t get pulled up on it”. Set your alarms for two years and let’s see, shall we?)


Oh, OK then, I’ll accept the post of Internet Tsar since I’m the one who’s identified the problem. (Ignore those people in the survey. They were just helping out.) Let’s get to work! First off I wouldn’t allow any of these “page not found” pages – what a terrible waste. We’d have a single, centralised “page not found”, probably on my Internet Tsar website. None of these different ones on different sites. We all have to make sacrifices, you know.

Obviously all the social networking sites will have to squeeze in together, because it’s simply wasteful to have MySpace and Facebook and LinkedIn using up valuable pages when many of the people on them are the same. As are the sites. The integration should be fun to watch.

Actually each time I talk about it the idea gets more attractive. And look, the first part of the job is already done: the internettsar page is already taking 404s. I’m not even in the job and I’ve saved the web from bloat!

In my column the week before, HMRC lost disks were much on my mind. Did you know the person who “lost” them (allegedly) was born in the year that the Data Protection Act became law? If the government – of whatever day – had been on the job, it would have made data protection and its ramifications part of the school syllabus, so by the time that person got to secondary school at 11 – in 1995 – it would be baked in. But..

Instead, schools have taught computing in the dreariest way imaginable, failing to prepare children for the electronic world as it really is. As a result, it must have seemed like the most logical thing in the world to that junior official to burn a couple of discs – you know, like you would with some music you downloaded off the original Napster (which was all the rage when s/he was 18) – and stick them in the post. Security? Data protection and responsibility? What the hell are they?

the fundamental failing here: education. Our schools are turning out people whose computer experience and knowledge does not fit them for the world as it is. They aren’t taught that protecting data is essential; that though the internet should be treated as hostile, it is entirely feasible to set up a secure virtual private network link (VPN) to transfer data safely. They aren’t taught that computers are tools, but that their near-infinite flexibility means you have to understand them very well to use them safely: it’s like a saw that can also be a knife and a drill in some circumstances, so that you have to be precise.

Instead, our schools are turning out people who know what a database is in general terms, and can use clip art from Microsoft Word, and think that the world begins and ends with Microsoft’s products because that’s all they see.


  1. Actually, some of us in schools doubt the numbers behind the discs to start with!

  2. I would have thought you, of all people, Charles, would know that you need an RSS feed if you want people to read your ‘not-widely-noticed’ column. In fact, better still, either repost the articles here or (if the Guardian won’t let you), at least link to them here. There are 63 of us who bother to subscribe to your blog in Bloglines, and presumably others in other feed readers: surely you don’t expect us to make a weekly Friday (Friday? Not even Guardian Technology day!) trek over to the Guardian to check out your pearls of wisdom? You’re good, but you’re not that good!

  3. @njr: 63 Blogliners? Scary. There is the link above in the RH column – ah, but you don’t see that – to stuff I’ve written at the Guardian. Actually, as someone pointed out, I’m a tag now – so I could just post the tag link.

    In fact there *is* an RSS feed for my stories: – that’s proper “stories”, not blog stuff.

    But yeah, I’ll aim to post an extract and link in future. I am proper told off, eh.

    @StephenL: why do you doubt the numbers? Jack did a quick calculation which shows there’s plenty of room for all those records given a quick bit of compression:

    it seems there are only 7.25m records, each record being a family with one or more children. That would provide 203 characters of data per family, which is enough to include names and dates of birth, an address and bank details. The simplest way to put a single database on to two CDs is to zip it using an archiving program such as WinZip. This would allow password protection, and would also compress the data. Text can easily be compressed into less than half the space, allowing more data to be stored on the discs. In this case, it could provide from 300 to 400 characters per family.

  4. RSS feed my arse. You don’t NEED one. I don’t use RSS it’s NOT the holy grail. Sorry, I need to go sit down in a dark room.

  5. Actually, data protection (in particular the Act) and its ramifications are taught at both GCSE and AS-level in ICT classes. Problem is, the rest of the syllabus (and, in honesty, the data protection bit) are so mind-numbingly tedious that almost none of it sticks.

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