Attack of the Digital People: The BBC goes fully Bong

Can't be long now until we get Strictly Come Dogging

Comment Imagine this. At vast expense, the BBC launches a chain of launderettes - digital launderettes, that we shall call "BeebWash". Each BeebWash "space" (they love the word "space") would show BBC programmes and no doubt, "facilitate community engagement". So expansive and vague is the BBC's current Royal Charter, that BeebWash would actually tick all its boxes (not only the "mission to inform, educate and entertain", obviously, but also "sustaining citizenship and civil society") and happily sit within the corporation's remit.

It's a new digital platform. It's inclusive. Do you see the problem?

BeebWash illustrates a conundrum. There are many things that the BBC could do, such as open launderettes. Worthy things. Digital things. Then there's "things that only the BBC can do", in other words, fill a void, providing news and programmes that the market won't make, but that are worth making. This is how it has in recent decades justified its existence. It's what most people - even the Beeb's critics - want it to do. Broadcast, rather than narrowcast to niches. And because resources are finite, a pound spent on a non-core initiative means a pound cut from Newsnight - which has no commercial rival - or drama.

This morning the BBC announced a kind of TCP/IP BeebWash, called "Make It Digital". It marks the triumph of the Digital People - a strange cult of the otherwise unemployable, impeccably middle class and possibly sexless (I haven't checked) - over the creatives. It mirrors the rise of the Government Digital Service in Whitehall. Move over, the Digital People are here! In Make It Digital, the BBC has identified a problem, and decided it alone can fix it. This has nothing to do with making things other people can't - and note how closely the "problem" overlaps the "solution".

Auntie will make a new computer, the MicroBit, and give one away one million of them, one to every 11-year-old. It will take on 5,000 interns and teach them "digital skills", such as the making of short videos in order to enrich Silicon Valley venture capitalists. The Beeb will fling masses of education material into classrooms. It will even - as suggested by our own Steve Bong two years ago - make dramas out of game formats. Not Angry Liver Birds, alas. But Grand Theft Auto II.

All this is evangelism, and "Digital" is indeed a kind of religion for secular liberal-arts types. If believers have trouble explaining God, then Digital People have trouble explaining Digital, too. Try it - you'll see.

"Only the BBC can bring partners together to attempt something this ambitious, this important to Britain's future on the world stage," said Director Generalissimo Tony Hall today.

If you can't do, teach. And if you can't do or teach, teach Digital Skills

But why "digital skills"? Why not teach us something useful, like maths, or Chinese - or even basic literacy? (In the 1970s the BBC taught literacy - viewers of a certain age may remember Bob Hoskins and The Dooleys theme tune ruining Sunday tea times).

The fact is, this is one of the tech-savviest nations on the planet, with world-leading adoption curves for new technology. We're not yokels - we're quite "digital" enough already. However we have fallen behind Slovenia, and even Vietnam, in mathematics, according to the OECD. And in real literacy, we're not much better: 23rd. The UK has dumbed down its curriculum while other countries made theirs more challenging. No wonder we're going in opposite directions.

After all, is it realistic to suggest that UK children are spending too little time on iPads and at computers? That's not what most parents tell me. I doubt if you could find even one parent who sighs, sadly, "I wish mine would increase their screen time. I just can't get them interested."

Perhaps The Digital People don't have children?

Let me through - I'm Digital

But the answer is actually in the question. "Digital" today is a magic word that opens doors, and budgets. "Er, yes. Digital. Vitally important. How much money do you need?"

The appeal of the word "Digital" explains the current rampage of the unskilled and semi-skilled into positions of influence which they are completely unqualified to fill. GDS, in which teams of ignorant website designers ruined huge swathes of the government's online estate, we've already mentioned. The European Commission's DG-CONNECT empire is another example: expanding from one Commissioner to three.

In Brussels they have a Digital Agenda. It's remarkably similar to Make It Digital, both in the vague language it uses, and its evangelical fervour. (Staff are being "deprogrammed" in the new Commission, one told me). But the fact is you could abolish DG-CONNECT entirely, and nobody who didn't work there would even notice.

The first rumblings this came eight years ago, with Ofcom encouraging the creation of a general purpose fund, the Public Service Publisher, or PSP. Rapidly nicknamed the "Nathan Barley Quango", the idea was shot down by MPs, and Ofcom abandoned it. Then the recession happened, and we never heard of it again, until now. Make It Digital is the Nathan Barley Quango reborn.

Those of you who actually teach kids coding, who run unpaid, voluntary code clubs, seem to be ambivalent (at best) about the arrival of the Digital People. One Reg reader we're aware of, with a distinguished software career in household-name tech companies, teaches 10 year olds Fibonacci sequences after hours. Do you think a Digital Person even knows what a Fibonacci Number is? Does Coffee Klatch know about such things? As with BBC budgets, time is finite. An hour spent teaching a child "to code" is one hour less learning maths, or a musical instrument, or a sport, or a language.

Even if you don't buy the notion that ruthless self-advancement explains the need to promote things the UK clearly doesn't need, there's a strong element of narcissism involved here.

A major part of Steve Bong's manifesto for the BBC now seems to have come bizarrely true. I wonder which bit of the Bong Broadcasting Corporation plan will be next - crowdsourcing dramas? Strictly Come Dogging? Or laying off the remaining journalists, and teaching them Wikipedia wheel war tactics? ®

Bootnote

The Register asked the BBC's comms department how much "Make It Digital" would cost, whether BBC Trust approval was needed (as it is for initiatives costing over £50m), and if it was, whether approval had been sought. We have yet to hear a reply.

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