As well as the usual UK post-election party political wailing or gloating and general spinning, deeper things are going on.
Here’s my theory. Namely that technology is making democratic government itself harder and harder. Eventually impossible?
Think about it.
Information technology in its current galloping form erodes categories, everywhere and for everything. Openness and privacy. Here and there. National borders. Secure and insecure. ‘Jobs’. Men and women. Dead and alive.
Why is this happening? Mainly because networked computer power lets us count and measure and analyse things that previously were uncountable/unmeasurable and far harder to analyse convincingly.
This is Big Data. Every second gazillions of new data-fragments are collected from our desktops, our cell-phones, our security cameras, workplaces, hospitals, cars and so on. With Big Data comes new technical ability to study Big Data. To look for patterns and try to work out if they are coincidental or somehow ’caused’ by something.
What is privacy itself? What does the word now mean?
Take Pavegen. This is a sassy technology that takes the energy from our footsteps and transforms it into electricity. Cool! It won’t work on a scale that makes sense in your house, but in a shopping mall or a busy street or gym or somewhere getting heavy footstep traffic for most of the day it’s terrific. ‘Smart cities’ love it.
But just as Pavegen turns into useable power that motive energy that for the last few eons has disappeared by way of vibration and heat, Pavegen can also collect data about every footstep you make on its tiles. That data can be aggregated and used by people clever at that sort of thing. Plus in principle you yourself can be followed through your own distinctive walking-pattern.
Meanwhile as I walk down the street the light from the sun bounces off my face in streams of invisible photons. For most of human history that was that. But now almost anything that happens can be photographed and stored and published:
How dare you take a picture of me, even when I’m in public! You’re invading my privacy!
But you don’t own the photons bouncing around in the air. No-one does. I just gathered a few of them them, using a cheap camera-drone hovering a mile away! Mind your own business! You’re invading my privacy!
Phew. Back home!
Hurrah for clever Apple HomePod and Amazon Echo and that Google gizmo. You can talk to them and ask them to play music or tell you stuff!
Nifty. They work because they’re attached to staggeringly powerful computers around the world. So those computers are attached to you and can follow in incredible detail what goes on in your house.
Take ‘sex robots’. What if you buy a sex robot (or indeed any robot) and violently abuse it for your own private amusement? Should any robot come with an inbuilt function to record/report such violence? Does such home-based ‘private’ violence against a thing you bought suggest that you might be the sort of person to commit a similar assault on another human being? What if you are a jihadist who practises slitting infidel throats by attacking robots at home? Should the police be alerted? What if the robot manufacturers store data on your attack on their creation and do NOT alert the police, and you proceed in fact to attack a fellow human in that way? Can the manufacturers be held for negligence?
What about HomePod picking up your ‘joke’ in your kitchen about mounting a terrorist attack? Should the police be alerted?
Thus the issue.
Technology advances faster than any of us, let alone frumpy old government departments, can grasp. Some of the things that can be done using digital data are next to impossible to define in mere words. So how to draft and then enforce laws that make sense in themselves and might generally improve the way things work?
As I said at a conference in London the other day: “It’s not that technology lets the genie out of the bottle. There are lots of genies and lots of bottles! But the real question is now quite different: what’s a bottle?“
Governments can’t cope with all this. They jump around in panic mode to pretend they’re in control by piling on more and more restrictions. That’s why the previous Labour governments created a staggering 3,600 new criminal offences over their years in office. That’s actual oppression. Of us.
I have asked an FOI question on the Conservatives’ record since then.
This is why in part this election was even more awful than all the others. No party is ready to discuss these issues. Nor are the mass media, themselves under threat from technological competition. They all rely on us being bludgeoned into submission. They all talk loftily about ‘freedom’ or ‘responsibility’ but then use any power they get to scheme to take away our freedom and nationalise our responsibility to show that they are ‘doing something’. There’s almost no meaningful systematic policy talk of using all this technology and human freedom/creativity to do everything differently and better.
NHS and health. Migration and borders. Defence. Insurance. Education. Democracy itself. On every front the language and logic of their so-called policies largely rehashes what we have had for decades. Hardly a whiff of any libertarian imaginative thinking.
This was the core disappointment of the May Conservative election lunge. It failed to articulate radical, interesting, unexpected, bold ways to use technology to make the most of the UK’s Brexit opportunities and launch a wider national reform agenda. This left a space wide open for Labour to pretend to be ‘cool’ and mop up lots of votes of energetic young people who ‘get’ technology and enjoy creating stuff with it.
It all staggers on until the next election. But not in any useful or wise or optimistic direction.