Sketch: MSPs grapple with the world of technology

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 2 November 2018 in Comment

The fact everyone agreed with each other was not enough to stop MSPs from debating the concept of digital inclusion

Image credit: Iain Green

The debate on digital inclusion was delayed because Labour MSP Colin Smyth was unable to turn his microphone on.

At first it seemed his speaker card was upside down in the machine. He switched it, but it still didn’t work. He moved seats, but it still didn’t work.

The microphone was excluding Smyth, in front of everyone’s eyes. It was horrible to watch. This was exactly the point of the debate, and it was being played out in one, slow motion, physical metaphor. Eventually someone had to come over and give him a new card.

This, in essence, was what the debate was about. Not enough people have access to digital technology, and when they do have it, there are too many people who feel unable to use it.

That’s really it. In fact, the one positive development from the session was that there seems to be very little appetite in the Scottish Parliament for promoting digital exclusion, though at one point Tory MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston did briefly argue for it, before correcting himself. It’s sort of like sustainable development in that sense, with those arguing for growth to be as unsustainable as possible apparently unable to say so.

Kate Forbes, the newly appointed Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy, started things off. “We increasingly recognise it’s nonsensical to refer to a digital world as though it is independent of the world. The digital world is the current world as we see it,” she claimed.

And that may be true, though it did raise serious questions over why they were having this debate. If the digital world and the real world are the same world, this was just a three-hour discussion on the word ‘inclusion’.

Two rows back, Stewart Stevenson watched on, while slowly stroking his own shoulders.

Stevenson had started with a trip down memory lane. Now that’s not especially surprising – MSPs often base their speeches on this stuff. It’s just that in Stewart Stevenson’s case, the lane in question has become a very strange place.

Maybe it was OK once. Maybe the lane was once lined with quaint hedges and flowering shrubs. Maybe the sun shone down on it, as Stevenson’s recollections flitted and fluttered from tree to tree.

But no longer. Stewart Stevenson’s lane of memories has become twisted and gnarled. Warped. The trees have melted. His memories left baffling and surreal. A memory lane designed by Salvador Dali.

Forty years ago, he predicted that computers would triumph when we no longer realised we were using them, he asserted. People report lost phones faster than lost wallets, he pointed out. “Those who master the new technology can stride off over the horizon,” he boasted.

“I and two pals, Alasdair Macpherson and Robert Davidson, built the first home computer in Scotland in 1975,” he claimed.

And maybe they did. Maybe it’s true. But this is pretty much how it always goes. You start off on a casual stroll through Stevenson’s memories and end up on some nightmarish safari, like when the electric fences break down in Jurassic Park.

His speech was on fibre-optic broadband and he started at the beginning. “The Romans communicated digitally across their empire nearly 2,000 years ago, via a system of hilltop signalling,” he announced. A sickening sense of realisation spread across the chamber. He was starting two millennia back, and working from there.

But, to be fair, Stevenson did seem to have some background in computing – at least in the same way he has some background in everything – and it did seem doubtful how firmly the others grasped the topic. It was sort of like seeing a dog watching TV – yes, they’re interested, but it’s never clear how much they understand.

Which brings us to Willie Coffey – a graduate of computer science – who started his speech by making “a plea for any of our young potential graduates of the future to think seriously about a career in software development”.

He said: “That’s what I hope that the theme of the debate is about – bringing all our people along on this digital train journey, so that no one is left behind at the station as it speeds faster and faster ahead.”

It seems questionable how many “young potential graduates” were watching Coffey’s speech at that moment, though it is of course possible that’s how all young people spend their Tuesday afternoons – huddled around a laptop, watching with bated breath as the SNP MSP for Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley speculates on the departure times of metaphorical trains.

He said: “We need governments to think about how best to sell the tickets so that everyone can have a seat on the train.”

Not that the train was entirely metaphorical, of course, because as Forbes had already explained, it is currently Scottish Government policy to treat the digital world and the normal world as the same thing.

The point, though, was that Coffey wanted to help businesses to scale up their digital capabilities. “As we know, it takes far too long for my constituents to get to Edinburgh on a real train, never mind on a digital train.”

How would you get to Edinburgh on a digital train? And what is a digital train? Is it the same as a real train? The man is obsessed with trains.

But at least Colin Smyth got his card working in the end, with the South Scotland MSP basing his remarks around the need for a “comprehensive” approach to inclusion.

And MSPs nodded on, with Smyth looking happy enough. It was just nice to be included.

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