Political leaders need to really understand technology – not just ‘like’ it…

We live in turbulent political times. What once were certainties around the steady state of centre politics, swinging gently left, then right, have given way to a transatlantic upheaval. Those confident that the backdrop of global-friendly policies would allow them to operate and grow their businesses in much the same way they always have, are facing up to the fact that they must now react to a much less certain world. The rapid swing to the right of the political spectrum – coupled with a much more isolationist, nation-state approach to trade and movement of people – means that those within business and tech need to start thinking very differently about how it will operate in this new landscape.

Despite this change, technology serves as a constant yet ever-growing backdrop to how this new world will play out. Technological advancement continues at pace, with the internet continuing to be a border-less network where data, facts and opinions can flow between countries and people unhindered. The rapid growth in processing capabilities allied to a growth in the connectivity of all our worlds presents some very real opportunities and challenges to our political leaders.

We have seen this play out through recent political campaigns, where opinion and reaction were voiced first through social channels long before the traditional media could receive, fact-check and comment.  Politicians are realising that they can get straight to voters through an unfiltered medium that allows them a direct line of communication. However, just because the current crop of politicians embraces social media, that doesn’t make them technology-literate. Donald Trump stated during his election campaign in 2016 that ‘I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what’s going on.’

In both the US and the UK, the response to increased pressure from terrorists and other criminal parties using the internet has been to rapidly increase surveillance powers and demand back-doors to encryption protocols. This ‘I don’t understand it…I don’t like it…we need to control it’ approach is leading to a dumbing-down of the debate about technology and its role in our lives, not to mention scaremongering about the impact and risks of internet usage.

Ultimately technology as a ‘thing’ doesn’t care at all about this. The advances that we are starting to see now will lead to a wholesale change in how we think about our lives. I strongly believe that the coming together of autonomous transport, AI and natural language interfaces (such as Alexa) will serve as a major inflexion point, as significant as the last industrial revolution. These changes will lead to a broadening digital divide, where the ‘haves’ with complex jobs and high salaries will benefit from technology, giving them more free time and capabilities to think and be creative, whilst the ‘have-nots’ will be displaced by technology that can do their jobs faster, better and cheaper than they could have ever dreamed. One of Donald Trump’s key election pledges was to protect the ‘Rust Belt’ of middle America, giving manufacturing jobs and American goods greater prominence against a tide of cheap global imports. Yet it is precisely these jobs and people that are most threatened by the unstoppable march of technological progress.

When we look on both sides of the Atlantic to the desire to strongly control immigration, we face a different challenge. The technology world thrives and grows on global thinking. Teams work internationally across borders to solve complex problems. Within my own team here in the UK we enjoy the benefits of having members from many countries, bringing different ideas and views to the table. Ultimately our products must stand up in a global marketplace but in the same way that cricket and ‘warm beer’ are seen as uniquely British quirks, I don’t want our software or services to be seen that way too. It’s vital that we can afford the free passage of talent across borders in order that we can all continue to innovate.

It is right and proper to strive to protect our citizens and jobs, particularly those in greatest need of protection. We must, however, do this in a way that takes technological progress into account. Our leaders need to truly understand not just the technological landscape now, but how it will look in the coming years and how it will affect the citizens and businesses within their borders. We need to understand how the welder, the fruit picker, the checkout assistant and the truck driver can take advantage of technology growth rather than be displaced by it. This is a complex challenge, but one that if not solved, may lead the very voters that put our current leaders in place feeling as if they have been fundamentally betrayed by a threat that nobody warned them about.



Cover photo by: David Dibert  – https://unsplash.com/dibert/portfolio

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