03 November 2016

S5M-02281 Digital Strategy

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): Good afternoon. The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-02281, in the name of Fergus Ewing, on realising Scotland’s full potential in a digital world.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I suspect that, by the end of my contribution, I may be judged either an iconoclast or a heretic. I am reminded that, on 23 July 1633, Jenny Geddes threw her stool at the minister in St Giles cathedral because of the first use of the Anglican “Book of Common Prayer”. She sought to overturn the prevailing norms and I will do something similar.

None of this digital stuff matters at all. We really should be debating communication and services because those are what we are trying to get to. Digital infrastructure is merely one of a range of ways in which we might support those broader aims.

Let us talk about communication. The Roman empire had a series of hilltop signalling posts that enabled a message to get from Londinium to Roma in a mere six hours. It did not work at night or if there was fog or low cloud, but a lot of the time it meant pretty good—for 2,000 or so years ago—communication from the outposts of the empire to the centre. That was one of the reasons why the Roman empire was so much more successful than the Greek empire, which was still sending messengers around with messages in cleft sticks or, alternatively, sending secret messages by shaving the head of a slave, writing the message on the slave’s head, waiting till their hair grew and then sending them off—it took months.

What we are actually talking about and interested in is communication. Digital communication has been around for a lot longer than we would think. The Scots invented the first fax machine in the 1840s—of course, it was probably analogue, rather than digital, and the technology that we use today is very different. The telegraph, which was the first real digital communication medium, was the key thing that opened up America by enabling communications to be taken to the west coast, which was the making of that big country whose future we will all be watching with interest next week. The first private telegraph line between Edinburgh and London was opened in 1868, when the Bank of Scotland—for which I worked for 30 years—installed a telegraph line between its head office on the Mound and its office in Broad Street in London. The telephone came to the bank a wee bit later, in 1882. Like banks everywhere, the Bank of Scotland was cautious about technology and the board approved the telephone only on the strict understanding that it not be used to conduct business.

Computers, too, have been around for quite a long time. Astrological computers were used in Arabia more than 1,000 years ago.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con): I am always amazed at how much knowledge the member has, but I hope that we will move beyond faxes at some point and get to broadband. I encourage the member to address the question of how we will get broadband in the remote parts of the Highlands. Could that be weaved into his history?

Stewart Stevenson: We can certainly do that, of course. However, I will say, in part, that broadband is not necessarily digital. It is actually digital data that is carried on analogue signals. That is neither here nor there, but it illustrates why, when we talk about digital, we shouldnae get bogged down in all this techy stuff. What we actually want is for people to get access to services and good communications.

I am disappointed that Mike Rumbles is not here to hear me mildly correct one or two things that he said. I will start by addressing his statement that he lives next to a trunk road called the A97. That will be news to people, because there is no trunk road with that name. The A97 is a local road that is the responsibility of the local council. I will correct him on another point. He has been told on umpteen occasions that he is on an exchange-only line. So am I. My exchange is on fibre; I am not. I am counted in the 5 per cent that was mentioned, and so is Mr Rumbles. My brother lives in the centre of Edinburgh. He is on an exchange-only line, so he is in that 5 per cent, too. Different technology will be needed to connect people who are connected differently for reasons of history that go back more than 100 years to when the first telephones were installed in Scotland in the late 1870s—some of that wire is still around.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab): I take the member’s point that, in essence, we are not dealing with something new and that we are essentially talking about communication. However, the key difference is that we are facing a change in technology that is not just about communication but involves replacing every step that humans currently take as part of the supply chain across a broad range of things. That is new and it is something that we have never faced before and it must be addressed.

Stewart Stevenson: I agree with the member. He is absolutely correct. Of course, we have been through a similar change in the mechanical era, when we automated the looms. That had a hugely disruptive effect and we will see the same huge disruption again.

The big challenge involves ensuring that there is equality of access to the services that we can deliver via the internet. At the moment, rural areas are behind the pace. It is important that we get them on pace by 2021 and ensure that they are connected. However, as we develop the services, we are going to have to consider who gets the rewards for work that is productive. A lot of work will be of a social and cultural nature because the production of goods and the engagement in the delivery of services will employ a lower proportion of people as time goes on. That is a fact that we will all have to face, whatever our political views. We are going to have to have a debate about the wider effects of changing the way in which we run the modern world.

We also have to consider carefully—Patrick Harvie touched on the point but did not develop it—homogeneity versus diversity. If we get to a position where there are very few sources of services, a mistake or an error in the implementation of those service deliverers will have much wider effects. The first law of epigenetics says that the more highly optimised an organism is for one environment, the more adversely it is affected by a change in that environment. The bottom line for today’s debate is that we need diversity of supply and delivery. That way we can move forward together and I am sure that we will do so.

I hope that, in his future contributions, Mr Rumbles will take the opportunity to correct the almost totally misleading contribution that he has made today.


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