Blair's paper tiger

9th January 1998 at 00:00
In a new series, Dennis Stevenson confesses that, despite his enthusiasm for technology, he still plans his day on a sheet of A4.

THAT man in business class reading a book while all around him executives are fiddling with their laptops, - is he familiar? It could be Dennis Stevenson, the man who - when he's not being chairman of the Tate Gallery trustees, or of the media group Pearson, or running any of his other business interests - advises Tony Blair on the use information and communications technology (ICT) in schools.

Much as he enjoys electronic gadgets, and much as he believes that ICT should become "the fourth R", Stevenson is no one's notion of a techie. In his own words, he is a guy who runs things and, judging by the calibre of his cigars, he is a very successful one. His experience with successive generations of "new" technology has left him neither "starry-eyed about technology", nor a Luddite. This useful combination of enthusiasm and scepticism was shaped not by any blinding light conversion, he says, but by "defining moments" over the decades.

The first came early in his career. At 25, Stevenson, "a classic unreconstructed Guardian-reading liberal of the Sixties", set up a business "with a very clear view that I would create a base from which I could do other things". Five years on, he invested in a technology consultancy run by a "a bright young man from the techie side of GEC", Alexander Korda. "Word processors were just coming in, so I decided: we've got to have them. It was going to cost around Pounds 100,000I I sent the proposal to Alex."

Korda replied to the effect that they might as well burn the money, telling Stevenson that "the most under-used, under-rated technology in the world is the pencil - and when it's linked to the fax it's completely brilliant".

"That brought home two things. First, it's not really the technology that matters, it's the way, and the timeliness, with which it's exploitedI Second, that the real value that humans get out of a technology comes years after it has been introduced."

The lesson hasn't been forgotten. Stevenson still relies on a pen and paper to organise his life. It takes one ruled A4 sheet, and about two minutes, to rough out his many tasks each day. Even though he admits that the address book on his latest Psion is "utterly brilliant", paper still wins overall - though it's "a damned close-run thing".

But this doesn't mean Stevenson was not profoundly affected by the micro-electronics revolution of the intervening decades. Most of the businesses he's involved in depend on ICT, with e-mail "undoubtedly the one major change which, if you're running things, is the irresistible sharp edge".

Education has also concerned him: "Of course, I've had more than a passing interest - because I've got four sons between the ages of 12 and 23." His sons, he adds, are all happily participating in the wired society - but not necessarily thanks to their schooling. "It has struck me that the education system has managed to stay remarkably immune from ICT..." Such perceptions prepared the ground for the next defining moment when two years ago Tony Blair asked him to report on technology.

Stevenson thought long and hard before agreeing to chair the ICT commission, "Since the last thing I am is a specialist in this area". In the end, he decided that the exercise was worthwhile because, "even if some divine being came along and said, 'This is all bullshit', that blackboards and exercise books and conventional teaching are the right thing for all time, there's still the question: Is it right that every 16-year-old in the country should be able to go to a job without techno-fear? My answer to that is YesI it's completely counter-intuitive and against common sense that ICT could not help children in manydifferent ways.

"It's perfectly clear it's a bad idea for a child to leave school without feeling adept at sending e-mails. If you look at your own business, you want people who have that basic skill, just as you want people who can read and write."

Stevenson sees an increasing role for technology in his own life. He's just bought "a really cheap video-conferencing package" which enables him to hold face-to-face meetings with executives in Milwaukee from his new home in Suffolk. When, or if, he retires, "I'd use ICT for fun to a huge extent". What sort of thing? Well, there's a teach-yourself-statistics CD-Rom that he's been longing to work through. But on those long-haul flights, he'll stick to books.

Stevenson's record

Born: 1945.Education: Glenalmond College, Perth; King's College, Cambridge (MA economics and sociology).

Career: Chairman Newtown and Aycliffe and Peterlee new Town Development Corporation 1971-80.Chairman advisory committee on pop festivals 1972-76.Awarded CBE 1981.Director London Docklands Development Corporation 1981-88.Chairman Pearson plc 1987.Chairman trustees of the Tate Gallery 1988 - present.Chairman independent inquiry into ICT in education (on behalf of the Labour party) 1996-97.

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