#Fail: Politicians and the Present Digital World

We have entrusted our futures to people totally bewildered by the present digital world, and realizing this #fail will only be the start of it, says Ben Hammersley. In this lead essay of Demos Quarterly’s technology edition he asks, “where do we go from here?”

This is one of those generational things, and it’s going to enrage you. Almost certainly, if you’re of a mind to be reading this in the original , think-tankingly middle-aged, and absolutely for reals if you’re younger than me, and 40 words in already yearning for an emoji. Asked to write about the effects of the tirelessly capitalized Digital Revolution on our democracy, one part of me knows I could roll out the usual list of futurist cliches: Online voting! One-Click Campaigning! Social, dare we say it, Media! And in doing so would gain relieved nods from across Whitehall. Much the same as it has ever been, but with shiny bells on. Phew. Carry on.

Thing is I’d be entirely lying. And not just lying to you, but helping to perpetuate the utter self-delusion, wilful negligence, and tragic state of denial that defines the modern political world’s approach to the nature and effects of the digital world. We have, you see, in the current generation of leaders, entrusted our futures to people already totally bewildered by the present. Realizing this #fail will only be the start of it. Where we go from there is the real question.

But enough of the opening stance. Let’s go back to first principles. Forgive me if this sounds weird, but let’s consider the internet as a place. Military folks are keeping the word ‘cyberspace’ alive as a way of referring to it, and for good reason: it makes the analogies a lot easier, and much like L.P.Hartley’s Past, they do things differently there.

Here are some examples: the distance between two places is the time it takes to type in a new address, or a new search term, never longer; ideas spread like infections; information can be copied for free, perfectly, an unlimited amount of times; maths cannot be fooled; backdoors can never be kept secret; if you have a one-in-a-million interest, you’ll find 3000 others just like you; you should never read the comments.

These are fundamental features of the digital world, yes, but also of the real world. Indeed, considering it’s 2016, and we’ve had the web for almost two generations, let us stop talking about the “digital” world entirely. Let us stop with the Othering of modern technology, stop with the surprise at digital disruption, and stop with the pre-web nostalgia. Instead, we should consider why that nostalgia, embedded in the general discourse of our political class, is so prevalent and what it means for our lives. What is the true effect of a digitally delusional 50-something Generation P, with their cos-play Edwardian dress-codes and pre-Google working practices? Not simply what it means for policy and legislation, but for the nature of our political discourse. And we must also ask ourselves what a political leader would look like who truly lived in the present. Right now, we have no idea.

That sad fact is, in many ways, a bit weird. The things that have made the internet such a transformative force in human affairs are old enough for anyone in the Cabinet, say, to have spent the majority of their lives living with them. If not in practice, perhaps, but certainly in theory. You can choose any number of things from the superpowers the digital world has given us – the universal access to the sum of all human knowledge, the ease of group forming, the inherent social potential of mass communication and collaboration, the lowering of the barriers to entry to learned professions and closed shops, not to mention the dissemination of mapping data, market pricing, medical knowledge, and on and on – and anyone with any imagination can see how they might change the world for good forever. One might think that such an invention would be embraced by progressive politicians, if not for national policy, then at least personally.

Instead, though, there’s the trap. The word ‘progressive’ gives it away. Far from the dreams of early internet users, where a global village would result in greater understanding, the internet has resulted in a political landscape dominated at time of writing by the quasi-fascist Trump on one side of the Atlantic, and the professional harkens-back of the Leave campaign on the other.

Driven as they both are by the combined weight of bullshit Facebook posts and easily transmissible half-truth memes, there is an irony in their using modern communications tools to attempt to return to a fictional past, but it’s not a very good one.

Their appeal, however, is made all the more by their opposition, whose appeals amount to nothing more than forward into the status quo. We’ll move forward as long as nothing changes, even as accelerated change is the only thing we can count on.

Why is this? Why, given all of the amazing possibilities embodied even in something now as banal as the smart phone in your pocket, is there a vacuum of leadership in the UK who actually want to live in the future?

Tiresomely, inevitably for the UK, it might be one of class and schooling. The old adage that generals are always fighting the last war is especially true – understandably so, given the pace of change – within Generation P. After spending one’s formative intellectual years during the Cold War, or pre-9/11, or chasing the orthodoxies of Thatcher or Blair, it is unsurprising that one might find oneself unhappy to see the world through anything other than a traditional lens.

But that lens, through which hierarchies have importance, where distance is significant, where the flows of information and intellectual property are both visible and possible to influence, where nation-states are neat little packages inside a tidy Westphalian system, does not reflect the reality of 2016 in any way. An Oxford PPE degree and a stint at Central Office might tick the right sort of boxes for the right sort of chap, but it doesn’t help anyone understand the fundamental nature of TCP/IP and why it matters. That you probably flinched at the acronym in the last sentence doesn’t help either.

Indeed, it’s starting to look like almost every political crisis of the 2010s has been a function of this mismatch between Generation P’s mental model of the world, and the world itself: from the rise of UKIP and the European Referendum, to the threat of global extremism, and the inability to deal with climate change, their need to fit the massively interconnected, networked, and swarm-like world into a tree-diagram from an old text book does us all a disservice.

Professionally, I regularly come across this issue. My consultancy practice works with CEOs, Ministers, and other senior decision-makers to identify disruption risks: places where the world is changing around their existing assumptions. Time and again I find that the biggest risk is one of narrow vision. Seeing their industry in one way, means that wider change sneaks up on them: from the mysterious decline in hotel bookings that turned out to be AirBnB, and the existential threat to the licensed taxi industries that is Uber, to the managed decline of intelligence capabilities that comes with encryption. These are all simple, one-step, predictions made many times in past, coming as a massive surprise to a myopic leadership.

The counter-reaction is inevitably worse. Take the encryption argument as one case in point. The UK Government’s consistent attempts to counteract the technologically-based challenges of easily accessible, unbreakable crypto are a fantastic example of a blinkered world view. The magical thinking that rejects mathematical proofs, expert advice, and historical precedent, in favour of a quasi-religious belief in the power of the Great British Boffin to implement backdoors in our codes that only they will be able to use, with nothing more than a good strong cup of tea and a reference to Bletchley Park, is absolutely mental. But to acknowledge this would be to have to acknowledge a great many other uncomfortable truths, and those in turn would require a whole new way of thinking about the world. Who really wants that?

It is, perhaps, a massive failure of metaphor. Cybersecurity debates certainly have enough of those, all martial, all involving walls or moats or drawbridges, or penetration or capture, when a much more useful set of imagery comes from public health and epidemiology. Cybersecurity isn’t about sturdy defences so much as about good hygiene. But again, a change in metaphors implies a change in thinking, and that’s painful. Far better in this culture to be nobly unmovable in resisting newness, than fluidly embracing change and moving on.

But that is the disruption risk for Generation P. That’s the issue right there. We’re living in a world where, as stated in Moore’s Law, computing power for a given price doubles every two years. We have an exponential growth of technical capability, shocking even for technologists like myself, and a social adaptation that’s almost as fast – it’s been only about ten years since the launch of the iPhone, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and those are already dull and backgrounded into normalcy. The same is happening for DeepMind, Tesla, and Crispr-cas9.

It isn’t even a new observation in itself. CP Snow noted the gulf between the traditional political elites and the sciences in the 1959. Harold Wilson did so again four years later with his White Heat of Technology speech. The re-forging of Britain that he referred to never happened, and despite rhetoric to the same effect from recent leaders, never will. To embrace such technological progress today would be to upend so much social structure, disrupt so many incumbents, that none of today’s leadership really want to do it. Instead of a deep and meaningful funding, say, of academic research, industrial R&D, or the transformation of public services for the 21st Century, they opt for delay, cuts, and cosmetic shows of after-school JavaScript classes. Building an high-tech industrial base by teaching kids to code in this way is like trying to build a space program by learning to count down from 10: it’s pretty dramatic, but somewhat missing the important bits.

And so here, I think, is the tension inherent in society. The world has moved on, and left the politicians behind. Unwilling as they are to recognise the challenges and opportunities of the 21st Century, or to speak to them as adults, Generation P has left a rhetorical vacuum to be filled by social media demagoguery, the militantly nostalgic, and easy route of introversion and complacency. The levelling processes enabled by the internet, the sheer potential of digital technology, promises much, but without leadership it looks like pain. And without someone to lead us through that pain, we’ll default to whomever can be bothered to meet us where we live: in our feeds, our timelines, our meme-flows and inboxes. This Demos Quarterly, as ever, shows us the power of that. Anyone who wants to change the world should pay attention.