Jane Wakefield: Window on the world

UK gets ready to promote its e-savvy, while businesses look to e-blinker their employees...

It's all going to be OK. We can, as a nation, be good at something. We can, at last, take pride in our achievements. We may be crap at football and cricket but there is salvation. E-commerce is going to be "the thing Britain does well". It's official. Tony Blair says so and anyway we have a special secret weapon to help us be the e-best in the e-world.

And the name of the weapon that will head off the yanks? A civil servant called Allan.

Mr Allan was appointed UK e-envoy on Monday and will run around the world telling everyone how great we are at e-commerce. He'll also run around the UK and tell the directors of big companies that they have to be the best in the world (even though, according to the latest government survey, only two percent of said directors share Mr Allen's enthusiasm). And finally he will run and tell Mr Blair if things are going wrong, because one of the best things about Mr Allen, we are told, is he is best buddies with the PM. In fact he played Yes Prime Minister character Bernard for five years in real life, both to John Major and Tony Blair.

Oh, and to prove Mr Allen understands technology, the PM told the gathered hacks that this civil servant runs his own Web site, which is largely dedicated to cult rock band The Grateful Dead, for which he seems to have a boundless enthusiasm. The low-key site informs us it is the homepage of Alex Allen and Katie Clemson (his Australian artist wife). It also tells us they are just back from "our trip around Australia". What it doesn't tell us is that his jaunt to the Antipodes involved him being High Commissioner for two years.

Anyone with that amount of modesty is bound to be a nice bloke but why exactly we need an e-suit, however nice, to promote e-commerce is not clear. Mr Allan may know how to design a Web site but whether he has what it takes to kick-start an apathetic UK business community is open to debate.

At the launch of the government's latest plans for e-commerce in Cambridge on Monday, Allan was very quiet. So too at the press conference which followed. While a shy e-envoy with a panache for hippy band may be a novelty, I can't help feeling we need someone with a little higher profile and a little more charisma. If ex-Spice Girl Geri can be an envoy to the UN, why not have ex-Take That star Robbie Williams as our e-envoy? He might know chuff-all about computers, but he knows how to get publicity, and the idea of Robbie giving business a kick-up the arse and delivering speeches at stuffy international symposiums is rather appealing.

This is, of course, my own personal fantasy and perhaps Robbie's not ideal. Perhaps we should have a mini debate...

Mr Blair, who proved his Net-savvy credentials by sending Cherie a bunch of flowers via the Internet, will be relieved to hear that the good 'ol British citizen is also beginning to enjoy surfing and shopping online. According to a Which? survey 10 million of us are now online with around 4 million filling our virtual shopping bags with books, CDs, holidays and all manner of consumer goods. I have to confess I am not one of them. A slightly drunken visit to Principles Online ended with me ordering 1000 pairs of pants and desperately trying to cancel the order. Since then I have avoided shopping on the Net.

Incidentally, in my new role as ZDNet columnist, here's a word of advice to all the new-found aficionados of the World Wide Web. If you value your job, surf at home. British bosses are not happy with the amount of time wasted by surfing at work as another case this week proves. Philip Cooke worked at Gloucester City Council for 15 years before his bosses took exception to his Internet visits on work time. To avoid disciplinary action, which would probably have resulted in the sack, Cooke resigned.

Call me old fashioned, but I find this unbelievable. Having given 15 years of loyal service to Gloucester City Council, the poor man was hauled over the coals for surfing the Internet. The leader of the council admits people might see the judgement as harsh.

Too right they will. Would you work for a company with that sort of track record?

If I had been doing the same job for fifteen years, I think I might well turn to the Internet to relieve my boredom. Everyone gets bored in their job, everyone does a little bit of time-wasting whether it be chatting by the water-cooler, popping out for a fag, lingering over lunch or, more recently, surfing the Internet. You might as well ban people from looking out the window. The only difference being they haven't yet fitted the sills with cameras to monitor the amount of time spent looking out of the window per day.

Unfortunately they have put surveillance equipment on our PCs and the Internet lends itself perfectly to monitoring. While the government panics about the uncontrollable nature of the World Wide Web, Big Brother at work is watching everything we do. And, because they have the technology, employees are being punished. 1984 visions of Big Brother are coming true in the office and it is outrageous. Aside from the personal liberty issue, there is something worryingly inhuman in stories like that of Philip Cooke.

It seems to me that our bosses need to learn something about human nature. Did they really think they could give everyone access to the Internet and we would all obediently use it only when absolutely necessary? It is not human nature to work solidly for eight hours a day and it is not human nature to have no curiosity. If you give someone a window on the world, do you really expect them not to look through it?

Jane Wakefield is a reporter for ZDNet News UK. Pummel her with your comments at jane_wakefield@zdnet.com.