(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.)