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Pols Learn Geek – 10th May 2020

-- 5 min read --

You rarely become fluent in another language until you have to use it every day.

Classroom learning can take you a long way but a language will continue to feel ‘foreign’ until you move to a place where it surrounds you.

One of the effects of the current crisis is a dramatic shift in the way that technology is being used – we are all now having to ‘speak more Geek’.

This includes policymakers and I expect the debate on regulating technology to change materially as ‘Pols Learn Geek’.

I have started to hear a riff that these times will set back the regulatory agenda as Pols will become scared to touch services that are now clearly essential.

This kind of transactional calculation is rarely true in my experience, and here I think it misses a much more interesting and profound change.

Two Tribes

I have moved between the worlds of politics and technology during my working life, spending around half my time in Pol-land and half in Geek-ia.

[I am not a frequent quoter of Churchill, but this may also be apt for my career – “Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat.”]

Each of these worlds not only has their own specialist vocabulary, but they also follow their own ‘logic’ to the extent that things that are ‘obvious’ to insiders may be quite incomprehensible to anyone else.

This can turn into a culture war where people reinforce their own identity by fiercely rejecting that of the ‘other side’.

So, I have often dealt with Pols who steadfastly refuse to use the services they are charged with regulating as if to do so would weaken or sully them.

And I know many Geeks who find the world of politics so irrational and ludicrous that they would rather the Pols just go away and let Geeks inherit the earth than have to engage with them.

There are of course exceptions on both sides where Pols worked as Geeks before taking a political position or where Geeks are also political activists.

But it should hardly be surprising if many senior decision makers are squarely from one world or the other as success depends on being the best in one language not ‘wasting’ time on the other.

I want to explore what this means for the Pol side of the equation in this post but there are equally interesting questions about the Geek side.

Translation/Mediation

There is a stereotype of the diffident Englishman refusing to speak any other language, and instead shouting more and more loudly in English when foreigners don’t understand him.

The internet regulation debate often feels like this with each side – Pols and Geeks – uncomfortable even trying to speak the other’s language and instead ratcheting up the volume of their own arguments in Pol or Geek.

When Pols need to get serious about regulation, they can turn to a specialist caste of people who will translate Geek for them.

These translators come from government agencies and non-governmental organisations who specialise in ‘digital’ matters, as well as from the public affairs teams employed by companies

Complex technical issues typically need to be condensed rather than translated verbatim and they may include significant elements of uncertainty.

These factors mean there is often huge scope for the translator to apply their own ‘spin’ to make their output more critical or supportive of a particular measure.

This can leave Pols hearing quite different interpretations of the same issue after inviting opinions from multiple translators, but without a fluency of their own to know which is most accurate.

New Skills, New Dynamics

As Pols learn to speak more Geek, we can expect a big change in the sophistication of their own opinions, and in their ability to test views presented by the mediator caste.

There is no reason to assume this will be a one way street favouring tech companies who want to resist regulation, but rather everyone will have to up their game.

If you are working for an NGO pushing something as a ‘simple’ solution, you may well get tested more on whether there are hidden downsides that should also be a factor in the calculation.

If you are working for a company arguing that something would be ‘impossible’, you may be pushed harder to admit that it is actually ‘possible, just not how we want to do it’.

I am excited about the prospects for better regulation as more Pols can read Geek themselves rather than relying so heavily on mediators.

It would be natural for those of us in the specialist caste to feel some resistance to a change that undermines our own position.

This may be expressed in concerns that ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’, or that Pols are being hoodwinked when engaging directly with Geeks.

Not everyone is going to get it right, but I struggle to see how things can be worse overall when those drafting regulation know more about the thing they are regulating. 

Video Conferencing and Contact Tracing

On a personal level, I already feel the difference as two current issues push my colleagues in the political world to speak Geek every day.

First, the transition to using remote working tools to conduct the business of political bodies like Parliament is having a huge impact.

Everyone is now involved in debates on questions about the required bandwidth for live video connections and the relative security of different platforms.

This is not abstract ‘classroom learning’ but something they are experiencing directly which matters greatly on a very personal level.

Second, the political debate about apps to support contact tracing for Covid-19 has put a complex Geek issue very high on the political agenda.

[A divide over naming here is nicely illustrative of the language barrier as Geek friends talk of ‘proximity tracking’ apps while Pols and the media call them ‘contact tracing’ apps. An accurate description would be ‘proximity tracking apps to support contract tracing’ but this may not catch on].

There have been other tech issues in the past – Snowden, San Bernadino, Cambridge Analytica – that similarly hit the headlines but lacked something as teaching moments.

These previous debates could be resolved by Pols into Saints and Sinners without going deeper into the technology, eg Snowden as privacy Saint or as national security Sinner.

When Pols have to decide whether or not they like different variants of apps to support contact tracing, this requires much more understanding of the technology used by competing options.

This is an unpredecented set of circumstances where Pols are having to take crash courses in Geek for both their own professional needs and weighty public policy decisions.

A More Fluent Future

I recognise that I am an eternal optimist but hope that even the more cynical of you might indulge this optimism for once as a break from the doom of gloom of current times.

The current crisis is driving a rapid increase in the ability of policy makers to both use and talk about technology.

Tech issues are unlikely to be as prominent as the contact tracing app questions are today when ‘normal service is resumed’ in future politics.

But the increased ‘language’ competency will endure and will change the nature of the debate about regulating the internet.

Far from seeing this as a moment when politicians will be disempowered by a sense of dependency on technology, it is one where they will be newly empowered by a sense of familiarity with it.

2 Comments

  1. Nicely put, and thank you. Can you show us an example where politicians do demonstrate fears of becoming disempowered?

  2. Thanks. I do not have examples but there is chatter about whether there will be some kind of quid pro quo whenever companies sit down with governments, eg on reducing video download demands.

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