The news has been full of tech stories in what little we’ve seen of 2021: Facebook’s decision to ban news content on its site in Australia, Google’s threat to withdraw its service altogether from Australian users in light of legislation which would oblige tech platforms to pay for news, and Twitter’s intervention by suspending former President Donald Trump’s account.
We should not be surprised. We live increasingly in a world in which tech is one of the dominant themes of public policy and public debate. Facebook has 2.8 billion users. Instagram is creeping towards the magic figure of a billion. Add to that the dominance of tycoons like Elon Musk, who fences with Jeff Bezos for the crown of the world’s richest man, and the current boom in the UK tech sector, which has expanded by 40% in the last two years.
Inevitably we ask the question: how well do our political leaders navigate the new digital landscape? And how can they adequately answer the plethora of questions about social media, advertising revenue and freedom of speech politicians will need to address?
There is no doubt that politicians across the spectrum have become increasingly tech-aware. In 2017, what had been the Department for Culture, Media and Sport had the word “digital” added to the beginning of its name, to emphasise the importance of that policy area in a ministry often seen as something of a ragbag of responsibilities. The UK has its own quango, Tech Nation, dedicated to supporting the growth of the sector. And shortly after his election as mayor of London, Sadiq Khan appointed a chief digital officer, then published a Smarter London Together roadmap outlining his plans.
When it comes to individual politicians, however, the picture is more mixed. Some make a virtue of being very tech-aware: Glasgow Labour MP Tom Harris was one of the first parliamentarians to see the power and reach of blogging, starting in 2007; three years ago the then-fresh faced Matt Hancock became the first MP to have his own app; and even the prime minister took a keen interest in tech policy and promotion as mayor of London (though his interest in the policy network headed by Jennifer Arcuri was perhaps too keen).
But for some others, the story is not so slick. It is perhaps unfair that, ten years on, people still celebrate 28 April as “Ed Balls Day”, when the then-shadow chancellor, trying to search his own name on Twitter, accidentally tweeted it instead, but it shows the capacity for error. Equally, when select committees began to move to paperless working in 2012/13, there were many refuseniks among members who insisted on retaining hard copies of paperwork.
It’s not just a matter of stubborn minds or clumsy fingers. There is a dichotomy between politics and tech which, understandably, politicians often fail to resolve. It is worth recalling the words of Google’s former CEO, Eric Schmidt, in 2010: “The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.”
Anarchy and a lack of understanding, while they may be an unhappy by-product, are not results politicians seek. Instinctively, all but the most rabid libertarians have an impulse to assert control, because that, after all, is how to make a difference, how to change things. This is doubly true of ministers, who find that a few pulls on the levers of power can be addictive. We can see in the recently proposed NHS reforms that even ministers who call for independence, freedom and liberty of action can come to find that this often leads to the anarchy of which Schmidt spoke, and that it may be best to reassert control for ‘better’ outcomes.
All of this is concentrated in the current government. The Conservative Party has been, since the Thatcher revolution, the party of freedom, choice and an unshackled market. It is sometimes argued that such liberalism is where the prime minister’s heart really lies, and that he has merely put on the cloak of dirigiste populism to slip through the gates of Downing Street. Perhaps. But as the power of the internet grows, and we see on the one hand ever-greater freedom of the individual in terms of access to knowledge, and on the other great tech giants accreting data and power (and thereby influence) to themselves, there is an instinctive political response: we must do something.
In this age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, however, it is not at all clear that such a response is desirable or even possible. And here we run hard into the limits of politicians’ technological grasp. “Tech” and “digital” are desirable words to bandy around: sharp, modern, dynamic, children (or maybe grandchildren) of Harold Wilson’s talk of the “white heat of technology”. Understanding comes at more of a premium.