On BBC bias and the anti-capitalist zeitgeist
In the late 1990s, it was still possible to be largely unaware of the existence of the internet. In the UK (I lived in Germany at the time, but the figures are about the same), only about one in eight households had internet access in 1998. From then on, however, user numbers exploded. They climbed to one in five in 1999, one in four in 2000, one in three in 2001, one in two in 2002, and two out of three in 2003. In 2016, though, they seem to have hit a buffer, edging close to, but never quite breaking through the 95% mark.
It is in this context that the BBC recently published an article on what they call “digital exclusion”, describing the plight of families without regular internet access. While almost certainly unintentional, the article, and the responses to it, are a good illustration of how BBC bias works, and how our anti-capitalist zeitgeist perpetuates itself.
It is not that I disagree with the article. I don’t want to belittle the problem of digital exclusion, or imply that it is a made-up problem, just because it is a relatively recent phenomenon. There is a world of difference between not having internet access in 1998, and not having internet access in 2023. My 18-year-old self was not, in any meaningful way, constrained by the fact that he did not have internet access, because he lived in a society where internet access was a nice-to-have optional extra, not a requirement. Almost everything that could be done online in 1998 could also be done offline, if more slowly and inconveniently. But since then, plenty of social and economic activities have shifted entirely online, or emerged online in the first place. Those activities do not have a direct offline equivalent. If you cannot engage in them online, you cannot engage in them at all.
It is an example of how luxury goods can turn into essential goods over time, a phenomenon I described in my 2011 book A New Understanding of Poverty:
“Poverty is context-specific […] because the definition of necessities is context-specific. There is nothing inherent in a telephone or a fridge which would make these goods ‘necessities’ or ‘luxuries’. They are necessities in some places but not in others, depending on […] the social conventions prevailing in a particular time and place. These goods were not necessities in the 1920s, but they are today. As societies grow wealthier, social norms and expectations become more demanding and social participation becomes more costly.”
So I agree that in 2023, internet access constitutes a necessity, and involuntary lack of it constitutes a form of poverty, even if it would have been ludicrous to suggest the same in 1998.
And yet, rather than focusing entirely on the negatives – would it really have hurt the BBC to also include a paragraph acknowledging the phenomenal and rapid progress that has been made in the field of information and communication technology? Is it not amazing that we now think of something as a “basic essential” which my 18-year-old self didn’t even know existed? That over the course of my adult life, we have gone from “The inter-what?” to “How can we increase internet coverage from 95% to 100%?”.
This is not merely a matter of balance. It is an essential part of the phenomenon the BBC is trying to describe. If we think of internet access as a necessity today, we only do so because access has spread so rapidly. If we had stayed on the pre-1998 growth path, nobody would be talking about “digital exclusion” today. It is much more likely that we would describe internet users as beneficiaries of “digital privilege”.
Did the author of the BBC story intend to foster anti-capitalist resentment? Absolutely not. The word “capitalism” does not even appear in there. He merely describes a problem, and cites several people who are knowledgeable on the subject. But of course, nearly everyone who shared the story on Twitter interpreted it to be a belated vindication of Corbynism, referencing Corbyn’s “People’s Broadband” proposals from the last General Election.
That is not the BBC’s fault. The average Twitter user sees everything as a vindication of Corbynism, and there is nothing the BBC, or anyone, can do to stop them. But it is, at the very least, a lot easier to put a “Corbynite” spin on the story than it is to interpret it in the way I have done. The story is not, in itself, anti-capitalist or Corbynite. But in keeping with the current zeitgeist, it takes capitalism’s achievements for granted, treating them as an obvious given rather than something that needs explaining. It then focuses relentlessly on the shortcomings. It is the equivalent of the grumpy TripAdvisor review which takes great food, a great wine selection and reasonable prices as given, and then complains about downsides that are difficult to avoid, such as slow service at peak hours.
Anti-capitalists claim that the anti-capitalist zeitgeist is merely a logical response to the objective failings of capitalism. If capitalism worked, they claim, nobody would be against it.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Capitalism cannot win if we refuse to credit any of its achievements, pretending that progress just falls from the sky, but then relentlessly obsess about its shortcoming. It was Joseph Schumpeter who said 80 years ago that “capitalism stands its trial before judges who have the sentence of death in their pockets. They are going to pass it, whatever the defense they may hear”. Schumpeter would not have understood the word “digital” (except maybe in the sense of “something related to digits”), let alone “digital exclusion”. But neither the soft, implicit anti-capitalism of the BBC nor the hard, explicit anti-capitalism of Twitter would have surprised him in the slightest.