Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Broadband brings broad benefits
James Woudhuysen

The best thing about broadband is that it looks set to become part of the furniture. That, briefly put, is the thesis put forward by Frank Furedi, professor of social policy, sociology and social research at the University of Kent.

At a time when the European Information Technology Observatory (EITO) estimates that there will be 36 million ADSL lines in Western Europe - including Turkey - by 2006, that might appear a rather paradoxical thesis. There are, after all, nearly 10 times that many people in Western Europe, and a further 75 million East Europeans and others are due to join the EU in May.

The paradoxes increase. Furedi is a critic of capitalism. He's best known for his mordant polemics against contemporary society's weakness for panic attacks (Culture of Fear, 1999) and quack psychological remedies (Therapy Culture, 2003). But in Always On, Changing Britain, a major report put out by the European Policy Forum, he reckons that the lack of regulation of the internet explains much of the broadband explosion, and argues that regulatory pressures need to be resisted. Furedi also provides a balanced note of optimism about the potential of broadband. Narrowband, he contends, is tomorrow's black and white TV.

As familiarity with internet research, email and e-commerce has grown, so time at home with broadband has risen to 17 hours a week. The number of Brits working from home for one day a week was nearly a million as early as 1998, and those working sometimes at home nearly reached six million. With broadband in 2004, Furedi maintains, millions more workers are set to be doing some of their work at home.

With human communication being the killer application of broadband, online communities are not nearly as important as the way in which broadband supplements and complements the offline world. It "provides the infrastructure for the maintenance of distant community and family ties", Furedi observes, and by making work less location-dependent, "may well facilitate tackling the problem of uneven regional development".

The relationship between the broadband and the offline worlds is certainly more fruitful than the internet's critics allow. For every Columbine massacre allegedly inspired by videogames, there are thousands of deeper social contacts made with broadband.

Furedi believes that broadband will help overcome the isolation of old people, and that this kind of benefit far outweighs the few saddies and sickies on the web. He insists that new, risk-averse regulations against "broadcasting" on the internet, and digital rights management systems, will slow the development of IT.

Society needs more such informed, non-technical and libertarian advocates of broadband.

First published in IT Week, 30 March 2004