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BBC's SuperPower season

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Peter Horrocks Peter Horrocks | 08:08 UK time, Monday, 8 March 2010

Twenty years ago, a quiet British engineer was on the cusp of changing the world. Tim Berners-Lee was ironing out the wrinkles in a project that would become the "world wide web". As he readily admits, no-one could have predicted its significance.

Today, BBC News launches a two-week season on radio, television and the web taking stock of his invention and considering how it is changing our lives.

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It's a chance to stand back from the break-neck pace of change of the last two decades and to consider how far we have come, and how much further there is still to go.

For some of our audience, the web may have become a mundane part of their lives. For others, it will be untested waters. No matter what your experience, we hope the season will use the BBC's reach to uncover untold stories and give you a fresh perspective.

We are calling the season SuperPower, a phrase that - we think - resonates with other events two decades ago. Then, the Iron Curtain was falling and the power relationships that had dominated the latter half of the 20th Century had come to an end.

The world's superpowers were changing and new ones - with new power structures - emerged. The web grew up against that backdrop and its effect on the new landscape may have only just begun.

SuperPower is a chance to examine these changes and to ask who benefits: who is wielding this new-found power?

One example is the distribution of knowledge. One view has it that information traditionally imparted power, and that the web is the first medium where everyone can make his or her voice heard. But of course, if you want to take part, you need access.

We live in a world of haves and have-nots. Less than one-third of the world is currently online; for more than 4 billion people, it is still an unknown. During the season, we will examine that imbalance.

Our On/Off project has been following people in the village of Gitata in northern Nigeria as they make their first tentative steps on to the web using mobile phones.

The village, two hours north of Abuja, is not connected to the electricity grid and has minimal links with the outside world. So how will they react when they finally join the "global conversation"?

By way of contrast, we will drop in on South Korea - the most wired nation on Earth - where we have persuaded two families to give up their high-speed connection for a week. Can they still function when severed from a society that is apparently so reliant on the web?

We will also address how this technology has united previously-isolated people and given them a tool to share their experiences. BBC Russian has spent time with disadvantaged and disabled people to see how the web has allowed them to participate in societies from which they had been excluded.

This is a common theme of the web. It is a tool that allows people to contribute to and engage with organisations and people that were previously off-limits. Conversely, it has also forced some organisations to be more transparent and open.

This has been keenly felt in journalism. When I joined the BBC, the relationship with the audience was a one-way street. We made programmes for broadcast and - bar the occasional letter - that was the end of the deal.

Today, our audience is, as we often point out, at the heart of our thinking. And so another part of the season, MyWorld, will consist of your films, about your perspective on the wired world. And of course, we also want to encourage you to participate in the discussions and debates about this emergent power.

We also aim to also reflect what is being said on the web about the season and about world events. Blogworld will highlight the best of blogosphere in multiple languages, while the BBC News website has partnered with the non-profit network of citizen journalists Global Voices to give different perspectives on the news.

Of course, any technology can also be used to more nefarious ends. So the season will examine censorship, online crime, cyber-warfare and other more regrettable consequences.

Twenty years ago, only the sci-fi-minded could have imagined countries attacking each other with computer code. But now virtual walls join bricks and mortar as means by which countries protect themselves from outside threats.

The world has been transformed.

The season is a chance to step back and consider this change and ask: if we are all to share this new SuperPower, what shall we do with it?

Peter Horrocks is the director of BBC Global News.


  • Comment number 1.

    This is the second series about the internet on the BBC this year! It's good the biggest revolution since the dawn of TV is being so well documented...

    It's would be great to get everyone online, and it IS an integral part of our lives now, but we have coped for many years without it and there are some who still don't want it and don’t trust it (and can you blame them with all the fraud and monitoring of our online habits by companies/governments.)

    Why does it feel it is being shoved more and more on us? Just a thought…

  • Comment number 2.

    I agree with MoratBD because I´m really worried about how safe is the world wide web to the citizens. In my opinion the use of internet is unproductive in many situations and it´s creating a barrier between people relations. Like MoradBD said we have coped without it for many many years.

  • Comment number 3.

    I feel like I am caught in the middle some days - yes, I love the ease of use of the Internet and how I can speak to people all over the world, but I also feel itimidated by the demand to be "always on-line". What ever happened to privacy and not always being available to friends or work?

  • Comment number 4.

    It would have been a bit more informative if the "Mapping the global growth of the internet since 1998" diagram also indicated the growth of access speeds on average a user receives. Considering all that has happened with Ofcom over the past year actually raising their arms for once, I would consider this an important factor in seeing just how successful in terms of technological progression a country currently stands at, in comparison to the UK.

  • Comment number 5.

    The internet is great, soon I won't need a TV... (take note BBC)

    The threat from cyber-terrorism, cyber-warfare ('cyber' I hate tha word) is massively exaggerated - if terrorists restricted themselves to the internet activity then we wouldn't have anything to be 'terrified' about.

    What is perhaps a threat is ill-informed hype in support of hidden agendas - but then governments have been doing that for years and religions for centuires.

  • Comment number 6.

    As mentioned in the above comment this 'season' comes hot on the heels of BBC Digital Revolution online collaboration to make The Virtual Revolution set of programmes.

    Am I alone in wishing the BBC programme planners/BBC World Service had picked up on the momentum that existed from DigRev and made the link with this SuperPower season a bit earlier so that The Virtual Revolution was the perceived as the first part of this 'season'.

    People I had hoped would be excited about SuperPower feel much of it has been 'done' already with the excellent BBCDigRev/The Virtual Revolution. I can see that there are exciting things to come but many may not.

    Also depressingly the 'season' launches against the backdrop of the BBC's DG Mark Thompson announced plans to scale back the BBC's website and online presence: Tidy up the Website pages but in no way should the massive BBC archive and the amazingly successful listener/viewer interaction as exampled in BBC Spring & Autumn Watch programme websites & third party websites be curtailed. Real scientific results are emerging from research & reporting done via the programmes & the Web.

  • Comment number 7.

    What do the numbers in the chart of growth actually represent? France in 2008 apparently had 42 million out of about 62 million population as "internet users". Given the population breakdown and the lack of penetration in many areas I have difficulty believing this.

    I work at home and am on the internet all the time: my wife uses it occassionally, and the kids very occassionally. Lumping us all together is like saying the kids are readers of The Independent because they look at the odd article.

    I'm guessing the figures actually represent the number of households with internet access multiplied by the average number of people per household, which is only a vague approximation for "internet users".

    Finally, bandwidth is a crucial element. I live 40 miles from the center of Paris but barely scrape 1M, and there are villages in the area with no internet access at all.

  • Comment number 8.

    The Internet opens so many doors for so many people, there are many people who can't access the internet at home and many many more who can't access it at all, but for those that can, it truly is brilliant.

  • Comment number 9.

    Peter Horrocks writes, "Today, our audience is, as we often point out, at the heart of our thinking."

    I doubt that. The BBC did dip its big toe into the hot water of public opinion for some time but eventually found it way too hot and timidly withdrew it. Last year you killed off the Five Live blog with its stimulating debates among the public and you have just done the same to "Have Your Say," trying to represent the death blow as "changes" to the format:

    You had close to a thousand responses to that attempt to justify the demise of HYS, the vast majority of them calling for the old HYS, along with the facility to recommend comments, to be reinstated. You have ignored them, evidently uncomfortable with opinions that strongly contradict your own - as was so often evident in the most highly recommended comments.

    In fairness, the BBC did try to enter into the spirit of free inquiry and uncensored news represented by the Internet but it has failed. And it has failed because you are essentially a left wing propaganda outfit, distorting and sanitising the news to suit your own politically correct vision of what the news should entail, rather than what it does entail.

    Where to from now? You could of course dip that big toe in again but I doubt that you will. You will continue to minimise the negatives regarding groups and causes that you support while shouting from the rooftops about any negatives you can dig up regarding those you oppose. Meanwhile those of us who have become aware of this extraordinary deterioration in the BBC will go elsewhere for our news, knowing that propaganda, narrow agendas and distortion of the news can be exposed in minutes with the Internet.

  • Comment number 10.

    What on earth could be wrong with a world where there is always a mobile to be answered, a stack of emails to be responded to, and many on line chats to be engaged in? After all, once upon a time we would do the washing up whilst carrying on a conversation with someone doing the drying, or listen to the radio, watch the TV, or just think about whatever is on our minds.

    Distraction is good for us isn't it? So much better to have small talk, to submerge into the soap, to bury ourselves in a night out, than empty the thoughts from our tired old brains. So much better to have a society which has two shades, brilliant white and impenetrable black, than one with a billion shades of grey. Good to have apparently perfect mental health or the depths of depression than something that constantly fluctuates between the two. Perfect to have energy that is endlessly available or be exhausted than to think, feel and empathise with moods that constantly fluctuate somewhere between spirit and dispirit.

    Life is so dangerous if you make it simple, uncomplicated, and full of variation, isn't it?

  • Comment number 11.

    When all other attempts fail.

    Should the traveling public be informed of compromised air safety via the internet? Some think not.

    Like many I,m addicted to the internet I would not like to do without it. The net offers freedom of speech. We can publish our own work, be it video text or still photography without any worries just as long as what you post is either you own work or is the truth, right!

    How wrong could I be.

    As a commercial pilot of twenty-one years, one that holds pilot (CPL) licenses from around the World, I recently had occasion to become a aviation whistle blower, not the easiest path to take however when all other avenues had failed.

    Thinking to myself I’ll publish all on my own website I set to work. I uploaded a few pages of information, all facts backed up with a comprehensive amount of cast iron proof of my claims of a airline targeting its very own aviation safety officer, “fly as I say i.e low on fuel with aircraft defects or you are sacked, this guy was not a pilot just the owner of a very profitable company.

    Over the coming weeks my own video’s showing air safety matters, were taken down by good old trusted! Youtube. Their action was owning to the company in question, making a totally false claim of copyright.

    Okay not all was lost, I uploaded the same proof of air safety concerns on vimeo that other less known youtube. The company once more places a totally false claim to my copyright, resulting in my incriminating footage, going the same way as before!

    Soon I receive a very polite email for apple mac, saying that they have received a complaint from what turned out to be from my previous UK employer, stating that I was guilty of account abuse! as I had sent mail containing my safety concerns to others.

    Trip adviser did not like the truth either, yet has no problem recommending companies very much in news for having a poor safety recored, yes we are talking of passenger not only injured but killed as a result of possible pilot intimidation.

    I find all this very strange, after all, one can find instruction on the web, of how to make a bomb, furthermore, terrorist organisation can run a website, so why not a commercial pilot that has news that is almost certainly going to help prevent air accidents.

    So the big question is, has the internet really got the power and integrity that we talk of today?

    With my Initial website taken down owning to domain name dispute I have new website coming up very soon, time to let the public be the judge stamp out bribery & corruption within the the civil aviation industry.

    Full marks to the BBC

  • Comment number 12.

    This is a great project yet again from the BBC. The internet has changed my life totally, a liberating technology that has enabled me and many others to live anywhere and run a business successfully especially now with 3g mobile internet. I run a video production company totally on solar power and mobile internet in Portugal. However...I hate to be a wet blanket but......
    There is no doubt that the internet has become absolutely vital for the world to operate and if it fails in any way then everything just falls apart and that is the danger! One issue doesn't seem to be recognised is the enormous amount of electrical energy required to run it. It is estimated that last year the internet used 868 billion Kwh of electricity. As the internet grows this figure is bound to multiply. Nature one way or another will be expected to power it....and I don't think it can... and why should it? It's seems quite stupid to allow our infrastructures to be dependent on a technology that is not sustainable.

  • Comment number 13.

    This is a super program, but i'm frustrated.

    English is my second language. I would like to learn english pronunciation by watching the BBC. But the BBC doesn't help me. No subtitles for feature programs, sparse subheading of news etc. The deaf people, who'd like to watch BBC for its presentation etc., will have terrible time.

    I didn't like voice overs for foreign languages either. Why is BBC so averse to words on screen? I want to watch superpower, but i'll be watching a silent movie. BBC WORLD, huh?

  • Comment number 14.

    As mentioned in the previous comments the commercial entities that now controll the web are as much under the thumb of the puppet masters as the media and religions of the world have been for many years. The internet was designed as a way to share information by a guy that, put simply, wanted a faster way of sharing his work than walking down the hall.

    The technology that it is built on, has produced and promises to bring about is astounding. We have managed in 20 years more than at any time in our history as a spcies and this is in part due to the web. We are now at a tuning point where our web freedoms are in jepordy by the intrests of the fat cats and if we are not careful we may loose them. Anyone who reads Bill Thompson's blog knows what i'm talking about.

    The thing is what can we do?

  • Comment number 15.


    It's all soooooo good the BBC cannot even get this Web Page's video to play!

    Then there's all those shoot-em up, slash, burn, torture & kill games with over-muscled male & semi-nude, over-nubile female characters that millions of our kids are mind-locked into playing everyday!

    Music videos that generally reduce women to sexual freaks or worse and/or fill the air with the most blatant, crude, nasty, vile language!

    As for the pornography - - apparently only sport exceeds kiddy-porn' as the most accessed area!

    Governments across the World are logging-in & checking every single person's words & actions - - building databases on every Citizen - - in the interests of our own security, of course!

    My, my, what a fab technological world we inhabit!

  • Comment number 16.

    I'd like to see a show called 'The day the internet died' or similar exploring the impacts, big and small, on people's lives if the internet suddenly went down. Which companies would fold first, which countries would be worst affected, how much would world GDP fall?

  • Comment number 17.

    Great ad for what looks like a very good prog.
    But surely you could have done better than have yer average pc white woman as the rep for internet folk.
    with all your fancy editing surely you could have had a magical morphing of the main uk suring/blogging demographic!

  • Comment number 18.

    The internet dying would pretty much be catastrophic at this point, we're so dependent on it.


  • Comment number 19.

    #18. At 06:13am on 17 Apr 2010, dina poutine wrote:

    "The internet dying would pretty much be catastrophic at this point, we're so dependent on it."

    Yes, especially those who spam their own blogs vie others online debates and sites...

  • Comment number 20.

    I'm based in South Africa and think this is a fantastic initiative - hopefully the BBC will cover some of the political agendas hindering take up of internet in developing countries - like regressive telecommunications policies and state owned telecom monopolies keeping the pricing of access out of reach from the masses.

    The BlogWorld thing was awesome and hope it will be repeated again soon - many "citizen journalists" as you describe them add much depth to traditional news coverage by providing on the ground accounts, public sentiment and often more informed opinion with local flair - take Wonkie, a South Africa news blog providing weekly updates in comic format as a case in point.

    It's great that BBC is taking some initiative to promote alternative of content.. certainly makes the internet experience all the more rewarding.


  • Comment number 21.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 22.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.


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