The most significant revolution of the 21st century so far is not political. It is the information technology revolution. Its transformative effects are everywhere. In many places, rapid technological change stands in stark contrast to the lack of political change. Take
This isn't just an American story.
Technology has the power to make politics seem obsolete. The speed of change leaves government looking slow, cumbersome, unwieldy and often irrelevant. It can also make political thinking look tame by comparison with the big ideas coming out of the tech industry. This doesn't just apply to far-out ideas about what will soon be technologically possible: intelligent robots, computer implants in the human brain, virtual reality that is indistinguishable from "real" reality (all things that
In some circumstances, technology can and should bypass politics. The advent of widespread mobile phone ownership has allowed some of the world's poorest citizens to wriggle free from the trap of failed government. In countries that lack basic infrastructure - an accessible transport network, a reliable legal system, a usable banking sector - phones enable people to create their own networks of ownership and exchange. In
But it would be a mistake to overstate what phones can do. They won't rescue anyone from civil war. Africans can use their phones to tell the wider world of the horrors that are still taking place in some parts of the continent - in
In the developed world, impatience with politics takes another form. We don't look to technology to rescue us from failed states. We look to it to rescue us from overbearing ones. Politics in the west can appear bloated and stale. By contrast, the tech world looks dynamic, flexible and exciting. It invents stuff all the time. It is relentless in its search for what works, unencumbered by sterile political mindsets. When did a government last create anything as beneficial for the public welfare as Wikipedia? When did a bureaucracy ever invent anything as life-enhancing as
It can be painful watching democratic politicians attempt to play catch-up with the new technology. They know they need to try, but often they don't know how. A few politicians have worked out how to use
These failures help breed contempt for politicians not only among citizens but from the tech industry, which often assumes that government is simply an obstacle to be overcome, an analogue annoyance in a digital world. But there are some things the tech industry doesn't understand very well. Its blind spots include the story of its own origins. There would be no tech industry on the scale we know it today without government. This is not simply because every industry needs stable and reliable political institutions to uphold the property rights on which its dynamism depends. (Tech giants are hardly less litigious than previous industrialists, and some of them, in their voracious appetite to buy up and protect patents, are as litigious as anyone in history.) It is because government investment is what made the information technology revolution possible in the first place. The historical evidence shows that really big technological change requires vast amounts of waste. Someone has to be willing to throw huge sums of money around, knowing that most of it will be money down the drain. The foundations of the information technology revolution were laid during the cold war. It has its roots in the massive US government research and development programmes of the 1950s and 1960s. During this period most of the money spent on scientific research in the US came out of the military budget. That spending was fuelled by cold war paranoia - we've got to out-invent those crazy, ruthless Russians! - and it was enormously wasteful. But it was what made the difference. The internet began life as a military project; so too did text messaging. Of course, government didn't know what to do with these things it had created. (The US military assumed that texting would have only very limited, exclusively military, uses.) The whiz-kids of the tech industry had to step in and turn scientific innovation into marketable products: from Milnet and Arpanet to
The same story can be told about fracking, another transformative technology that is enriching plenty of private individuals who can claim to be supplying a public good (cheaper fuel). Whether or not it is a public good remains debatable: the environmental costs have yet to be reckoned. What is much harder to claim is that the people making the money are the ones responsible for the technology itself. The crucial innovations were a consequence of large-scale government spending on new means of energy extraction during the 1970s. The driving force behind that spending was the decade's oil crisis, starting with the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, which triggered a quadrupling of oil prices and a worldwide recession. Politicians were terrified of the possible consequences of oil scarcity: civil unrest, military weakness, social breakdown. Frightened politicians promote technological revolutions to forestall political ones. Further down the line, private investors reap the rewards.
Unfortunately, fracking doesn't herald the advent of a green technological revolution. It is simply a more efficient way of extracting hard-to-get-at fossil fuels. A big shift to green technology would take something extra: a fresh set of acute political threats to get the politicians spending our money to the extent needed to spark a fresh round of innovation. For now, the politicians are more scared of other things, including the risk of running out of the public's money. Anyone who thinks that technological innovation driven by market forces alone will solve a problem on the scale of climate change is deluding themself. Market players aren't willing to take big enough risks to effect the genuinely transformative changes. Only governments do that.
At the moment, the one government that is investing on a significant scale in green technology is
States can do plenty of things that business organisations can't. States fight wars;
But businesses can do plenty of things that states can't.
Most resources work best when they aren't pooled. Competition encourages diversification as well as innovation. There are limits to what markets can do, however. Champions of the free market have a tendency to extrapolate from its creative power an unjustified faith in its ability to solve any problem. Yes, private enterprise has given us the self-driving car, which may one day have the power to change the way we live. (Sit in the back, read a book, sleep, work out, make out and suddenly your daily commute becomes the best part of your day.) But that car still needs roads to drive on and rules to govern what happens there. What about the people who don't want a self-driving car, or can't afford one, or simply enjoy being behind the wheel? Who is going to manage the transition from a driven to a driverless world?
If the self-driving car is going to become the industry norm, it will take time and it will be messy. The transport network will have to adapt, the insurance industry will have to adapt and the legal system will have to adapt (not least to decide what to do with all those people who still insist on their right to have crashes). The market may be able to take care of some of these things over time, but it won't be able to take care of all of them, certainly not all at the same time. Change on that scale is too fractious: as Hobbes said, people have an inbuilt tendency to collide. Government needs
New technology has made it much easier for government to oversee what people and institutions are up to in order to check that they are not posing an unacceptable risk. Government can now spy on us in all sorts of exciting new ways: read our emails, listen to our phone calls, track our text messages, access our bank accounts. Government being government, it often does this inefficiently and cack-handedly, which only makes it more frightening. The revelation that the US government has been routinely conducting electronic surveillance on its own citizens has caused deep disquiet. Among the people who have been most disturbed are members of the tech industry. Their unease is twofold: first, techies don't like being spied on; second, they don't like not being able to prevent it. After all, it's their technology that's being abused. This puts the giants of the tech industry in a bind. They have to admit their complicity - we could have stopped it, but we didn't - or they have to admit their powerlessness - we couldn't have stopped it even if we had wanted to. Either way, it makes them look like pawns of the state.
No one likes to see politicians using technology as an instrument of control, least of all the people who invented the technology. But we have to remember the alternative to politicians controlling the tech industry: it's the tech industry controlling the politicians. Government using its monopoly power to manipulate
One question that has yet to be answered in
Can they keep doing it? The information technology revolution is a long way from being over; in many respects it is only just beginning. At some point
In the west, technocracy doesn't mean rule by engineers. It means rule by economists and financiers. But since 2008, it's been increasingly tough for financiers to assert their legitimacy as political decision-makers. Might the wizards of the tech industry have a better chance? There are signs that the disdain of
However, there is little sign that the people who built the new technology want to actually do politics themselves, rather than paying someone else to do it for them. They'll lobby, they'll fund, they'll campaign. Some of them will dabble with old-fashioned tools of political influence: Amazon founder
This isn't just a story about tech. Many people retain an interest in politics - we all would like laws made to suit us - but fewer and fewer people seem interested in being politicians. It's simply not a very attractive job. In a world of myriad possibilities, especially for those who have the technical abilities that bring lavish rewards in the private sector, politics looks like a real grind. True, successful politicians get to exercise real power now and then, which must be a thrill. But most politicians are not successful: they labour away, scrabbling for votes, striving for influence, only to find that someone has beaten them to it.
The result is that contemporary politics demands an appetite for that gruelling way of life. I don't have it. Do you? The class of people keen to be involved in politics is shrinking. This is good news if you do happen to have an appetite for it. The competition is not what it was, so that a desire to get into politics is often all it takes to be given that chance. In
The present British prime minister, foreign secretary, chancellor of the exchequer, education secretary, leader of the opposition, shadow chancellor and shadow home secretary were all part of the same generation of Oxford politics students. I didn't go to Oxford, but I did go to the same school as
However, this is not simply a Tory phenomenon. The leadership of the Labour party is also made up of individuals who are connected to each other by ties of family and education. Labour politics has been dominated in recent years by the rivalry between two brothers -
The narrowing of the political class through family ties is a function of the professionalisation of politics and the increasingly high barriers to entry. Politics has become a specialised business, and the best way to get good at it is to do a lot of it. It helps to start early. It also helps to have connections with anyone who can give you a head start. At the same time, politics has become a widely despised profession. (A recent survey suggested that most American parents would rather their children did almost anything else.) So it helps to have parents or siblings who can encourage you to give it a go, notwithstanding what the rest of the world thinks. Politics is hardly unique in this respect. Lots of children end up doing what their parents did, simply for reasons of familiarity. My father is an academic sociologist, and here I am writing this piece. I don't really know why it turned out like that. I don't think it's especially sinister, though it's not very imaginative on my part. I suspect that for many politicians the situation is not much different.
Does it matter that the political class is shrinking? In one sense, no. It is a sign of broad satisfaction with the political system that most people don't want to have anything to do with politics if they can help it. However, there are real dangers to the narrowing of the political class. It opens up a gap between politicians and the rest of us, which can breed contempt both ways. If we think that professional politics is only for the peculiar people who have a interest in politics, we will start to look down on them as weirdos. Meanwhile, the politicians will start to look down on us as fools, because we don't understand the business they are in. The disdain many voters feel for professional politicians is matched by the disdain many professional politicians feel for the voters. Each thinks the other lot don't get it. As the gap grows, it becomes easier for politicians to gravitate towards their fellow elites, who at least have a respect for insider knowledge. The political network intermeshes with networks of financial, technological and military expertise, which lock the public out.
Ordinary citizens haven't given up on politics entirely. In some respects there has been a proliferation of political activity beyond the traditional outlets. As the membership of mainstream political parties has fallen away and voter turnout has declined across the western world, irregular political campaigning has expanded. Concerned individuals often coalesce around issues that reflect their own particular interests. The new information technology has been an enormous help in this regard, enabling ad hoc pressure groups to form and allowing like-minded individuals to find each other and share their concerns. But this too creates an imbalance between the political class and the rest. Professional politics is becoming more concentrated at the same time that citizen politics is becoming more fragmented. The new technology brings people together, but it also separates them out by hiving them off into online silos of political concern. The connections that are made through the new technology can be speedy, but for that reason they may also be superficial.
Above all there is the danger that
IT revolution . . . a Chinese performer uses her mobile phone before a New Year celebration in
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