Why politicians don’t get the internet

(A slightly shorter version of this essay was originally published on A Burdz Eye View in April 2012. I wrote it partly as a response to an essay by Pete Wishart, but mostly to understand the phenomenon of politicians being clueless.)

Politicians sometimes say (and do) things that internet users think are both clueless and immoral. Why is this? Politicians want people to vote for them, so they don’t deliberately come across as stupid and nasty. Furthermore, they know the internet is important to the economy, and don’t deliberately want to sabotage it.

So why do politicians so often say things that give off the wrong tone? I think there are three systemic reasons for this:

  • They are not digital natives
  • They don’t understand the technology
  • The way the internet works doesn’t fit in with their worldview

Let’s explore these, one by one.

(1) They are not digital natives

The terms “digital natives” and “connected generation” both refer to people who grew up with the internet, whose daily life is interwoven with it.

As Axel Horns put it:

If your daily life is not interwoven with the Internet, many of the issues involving the [Pirate Party] might be quite invisible for you. So, we in fact are witness of a new type of ‘Digital Divide’ which is not measured in terms of having access to broadband Internet or not. Being a DSL subscriber but in fact being limited to painstakingly operate the own email account due to lack of Internet savvyness does not put you on the right side of this new divide.

These people see the internet primarily as a way of socialising with their friends and hanging out with people they shares common interests with, regardless of whether they have met face-to-face (Note: the original version of this essay said “in real life” here, but to digital natives, the internet is real life).

Politicians, on the other hand, sometimes see the net as a souped-up form of cable TV where “content” is pushed at passive “consumers”. Here, for example is Pete Wishart making an analogy between the internet and a shop:

Imagine if you will, a perfect Saturday afternoon shopping, and you come across your local record store and in the window is a sign – Everything inside absolutely free, open all hours. That would of course be utter madness and totally unsustainable, but this is what goes on every hour of every day on the internet.

Now I may be being unfair to Mr Wishart, but it seems to me that he views the internet primarily as something like a shop selling (or giving away) information goods: where passive consumers go to purchase (or “steal”) other people’s works. And he’s right that the net is a place where we get the copyright industries’ content, but that’s merely a side function, it’s not what the net is about. The content we care about is our friends and the communities we’re part of online.

And that’s why the threat to disconnect internet users is seen as so bad, so disproportionate: it’s banning people from talking to their friends, from socialising, from being part of the communities which have meaning in their lives and through which their lives have meaning. If someone wants to take away my internet, they threaten to take away a large part of my identity. I’ll fight them to the end, and because there are millions of people like me, and we’re growing stronger every day, we’ll win.

(2) They don’t understand the technology

In Britain it’s socially respectable to be ignorant of STEM subjects. So people happily say at parties “I’m useless at maths” or “I don’t understand computers”. For example Helen Goodman MP (Labour, Bishop Auckland) blithely admits: “the minute you talk about downloading software, my brain goes bzzzz.”

None of these people would every admit to being illiterate, but lacking a basic knowledge of science, technology and computers is as bad as that in the modern world. No-one was born able to read and write, they had to learn it. Just as they could learn to understand computers, if they put a bit of effort in. Voters would be reluctant to elect someone who can’t read and write; maybe in the future, they will be reluctant to elect people who’re technophobia and proud of it.

If people have a profound lack of understanding of something, then of course they won’t make good decisions regarding that thing. So it is with the internet.

(3) It doesn’t fit in with their worldview

Everyone attempts to understand the world through the filter of the categories they understand. What if the nature of the internet doesn’t fit in with someone’s pre-defined categories? Then they will struggle to understand it. So, what is the nature of the internet?

Firstly, No-one owns it, though different people own bits of it. The internet isn’t a thing, it’s a protocol — to be precise, the tcp/ip suite of protocols — an agreement that certain patterns of bits mean certain things, and because everyone keeps that agreement, the internet works.

Secondly, everyone can use it, so once you’re connected to it, you’re connected to all of it and can use all of it.

Thirdly, anyone can improve it. Tim Berners-Lee didn’t need to get anyone’s permission to create and deploy the world wide web. Nor did Bram Cohen need anyone’s permission to create BitTorrent.

How does this fit in with how politicians see the world? Well:

  • No-one owns it: governments are defined by what they control.
  • Everyone can use it: in government, making laws means imposing restrictions on people.
  • Anyone can improve it: Business and government cherish authorized roles. It’s the job of only certain people to do certain things, to make the right changes.

(This section of the essay is based on World Of Ends, which explains these ideas in more detail.)

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21 Responses to Why politicians don’t get the internet

  1. Laura Marcus says:

    I didn’t grow up with the internet as I’m 56! But I’ve been online for nearly 20 years now and feel as comfortable and at home on it as I do offline. Not sure if that makes me a digital native or not but I too cringe at the lack of tech savvy among many politicians. It’s where many people are – not everyone but many. So they should be there too and take the time to understand it and use it.

    • Phil Hunt says:

      I’m 48 and older than Claire Perry, the MP who’s pushing for internet censorship. Like you, I’ve been online for around 20 years, so for both of us we spend most of our lives pre-internet. But we’ve learned.

      No-one is expecting politicians to become expert programmers, just to understand the fundamentals — the essay World Of Ends is a good start: it isn’t particularly long nor is it hard to read. Given how important the net is already to most aspects of modern live (and it will only get more important), lawmakers have no excuse to be clueless about it.

  2. My suggestion (as someone over 60 who has been connected with bits of an internet since the late 1980s) is that your analysis is too binary. Every level of digital expertise is on a scale – a bit like textual or numeric literacy. Politicians necessarily spend a disproportionate amount of time in rooms with physically present others. Digital experts may spend disproportionate amounts of time in physical isolation. But these extremes do not define even a majority of people, never mind politicians.

    A balanced individual can survive and act wisely in a range of contexts – taking advice from others and understanding each milieu enough to gain from and contribute to it. All experts (in education, medicine, engineering, etc) find politicians wanting. So some should (and do) get into politics themselves. Other experts spend time explaining and promoting their areas of expertise.

    And some digital experts mistake their wisdom in systems or coding for wisdom in politics, values, priorities, economics, information management or sociology. Only some, and to different degrees.

    • Phil Hunt says:

      All experts (in education, medicine, engineering, etc) find politicians wanting. So some should (and do) get into politics themselves.

      A German Pirate Party politicians recently said: “we didn’t want to go into politics, but we feared that if we didn’t, governments would break the internet”.

      On a wider note, you’re right that no-one can be knowledgable about everything. I think that the internet is one thing that affects the whole of modern society in many ways. Not understanding it (at least on some level) is like not being able to read or write, and we expect lawmakers to be literate.

      • “Not understanding it (at least on some level) is like not being able to read or write, and we expect lawmakers to be literate.”

        I absolutely agree. And I think that to gain a useful understanding, practical effort is needed. I was one of the many who got half a clue by writing simple code for the BBC machines that went into schools all those years ago. I took one home for the summer holidays and played with it. I’m still not an expert, but I have a practical feel for when I am listening to or reading nonsense. Sadly, some of the nonsense comes from commercial interests within the digital industries.

    • Nick Smith says:

      Much better analysis than the original article.

    • Completely agree with this analysis. I generally find myself saying something similar whenever anyone has the bright idea that everyone in parliament should be a trained scientist. What I think we need in all these areas are education (of a non-hectoring, non-excluding variety) and, sadly, a trend away from “conviction” and towards thoughtfulness in political culture which probably isn’t going to happen.

  3. Ben Zyl says:

    I’m 46 and started in the mid eighties with Prestel on a BBC Micro, I got it almost immediately and have used such things comfortably since then. Never had to have a mouse explained to me either, maybe a lot of these people are just lazy and stupid? After all an excuse is a lot easier than some practical applied effort in any given direction.

  4. Paul Lincoln says:

    Some politicians do get the Internet and use it well. The Obama campaign last time around provided people with an astonishing range of tools for lobbying including telephone lists, press contacts and press release templates. UK politicians do not seem to have reached this level of sophistication. Look out for the Out4 marriage campaign which launched earlier this week. It is well targeted, it is being run almost entirely online and makes good use of YouTube as well as twitter.

  5. D Johnson says:

    I’d hate to be without it the internet. I’m not young but the internet is a source of knowledge (judiciously used), a store of experiences I can tap into, a social network, provision of access to a forum for almost any interest, a news base and more, without requiring an ability to understand the software and coding to make it work. I am grateful to those who can and do for my benefit,

  6. DIANE FAIRHALL says:

    I agree, D Johnson. I’m 62 and learnt computing on DOS in my thirties and was able to program in both BASIC and Pascal. Most (UK) politicians went to ‘posh’ schools who were probably slow to introduce ‘new technology.’ I can’t imagine Cameron and Osborne programming computers at Eton.

  7. Jimmy12345 says:

    I have to agree with most of what you said, it really is a generation gap. However, calling people “digital native” that’s a bit subjective, don’t you think? That assumes everyone born after oh I don’t know 1980 should somehow be an internet expert., or at least a media glutton as we all have become. Posit your argument, I don’t disagree. How can I? It is a very astute observation to see how the world has changed since the advent of the internet, and again more than likely an accurate description of politicians today. On the flip side, it has always been my proclivity to believe politicians for the most part are almost always not in touch with reality. They do not live like an average citizen surrounded by aides and those willing to placate them with praise and the belief that they are somehow better than the average citizen; therefore I do believe it is not only the politicians who are out of touch, but those that surround them as well. If that does not change soon, there may not be an internet as we know it now. Regulation of the internet will not help any one person, any country, or any particular ideology. Personally, I think its all bullshit and that politicians are self-serving panderers who will do anything to get the vote or $ to get the vote. If there was a lobby group with millions of dollars for the internet (which will never be because as you said, no one owns the internet) then perhaps we would see real shifts in political ideals pertaining to the internet. If not then God help us. Good article, thank you.

  8. Mickeyre says:

    I grew up on the Internet, I have been without it for one week (though I still have my phone), it’s as intertwined with my life as eating…..its censorship will go as far as alcohol prohibition

  9. Chris Q says:

    A little look at the program Yes Minister will reveal all .. scientists & other experts are seen as just that experts whilst the higher echelons of the civil service are made up of “generalists”, Oxford & Cambridge educated Mandarins. who carry out the proposals of the elected Government. i.e Politics. The internet is I am afraid perhaps seen as merely another area of expertise & thus it’s wider uses might not be fully understood

    • I think the received wisdom is that “Yes Minister” was out of date even when Thatcher claimed to love it so much. The age of lofty generalist intellectuals steeped in public service is long gone. My personal view is that the information revolution is still raging and anyone who thinks they know what is going on is probably wrong. Terrible mistakes are being made every day – some of them hailed as advances, some not. Politicians and experts are all at sea and it could hardly be otherwise.

    • ds says:

      I’m just in the middle of reading Mark Henderson’s very interesting book, The Geek Manifesto, which covers some of the same intellectual ground as much of the comment here.

      Much of our political setup is a form of intellectual and social monoculture, peopled mostly by scientifically illiterate people. There are exceptions, but generally science is viewed as a tool to justify decisions post hoc by cherry picking, or to blame for failures. It is treated either with outright hostility or with indifference, even though it is at the centre of most of the major issues facing us now. The Internet is only one of these. One source of conerne is the Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection, and the public pronouncements of its chair, Claire Perry, founded on a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the Internet works.

      To give some perspective, Mrs Perry obtained a degree from Brasenose College Oxford (as did David Cameron), though she is a social scientist, studying Geography. She chaired the Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection, which report she is currently using to justify ISP level filtering. Interesting, the report was sponsored by Premier Christian Media, who may have a vested interest in the report producing particular findings. Having skim-read the report of the Committee, I am faintly concerned about the rather leading tone of the discussion and mostly about the lack of understanding about the feasibility of what was finally proposed. The models of control being suggested are fairly traditional in scope, thinking that it is possible to have monolithic systems of filtering in place that will fit the requirements of everyone.

      I am 42 years old. I am not, by definition a digital native, though I am as close as it is possible to be without being so, My first exposure to computing was a 10 years of age, and most of my conscious life I have had an affinity with the digital. Others are clearly not as fortunate, but it is a source of great frustration to me that it is easy for too many people in positions of power to eschew theri responsibility to make themselves aware of these issues. Their continued and avowed ignorance is actually starting to become dangerous to the functioning of a free and economically equipped modern society.

      • ds, that is neatly and accurately expressed. My field is education where there is a great deal of accumulated knowledge that Ministers consistently ignore and regularly denounce. But like the internet(s), education is something that everyone has encountered and everyone has opinions about. I think the “digital generation” idea is probably a red herring. Whatever the issue, those who are not at the centre of knowledge creation and innovation will never know enough to make wise decisions unguided. All my sons grew up with the internet, but like most of their generation they only know enough to do what they want to do. The future for internet regulation will be driven by non-experts who operate with muddled understandings – just like health, the economy, engineering, transport, the environment and the arts. Only journalism and the law seem well-represented in the elected chamber.

        A newly constituted House of Lords might do something to put more lifetime experts into policy making and revision. Fingers crossed, eh? History should not makes us too optimistic.

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  13. I’m almost 60 and didn’t get on line until January 2001. But I’ve been a serious sci-fi consumer since I was 7 years old and I’d been waiting for this thing my whole life.

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