Content Block

Society 11/12/2017

Brexit has shown how our politicians are not prepared for the future

Last week the government’s social mobility task force resigned en masse. Chair, Alan Milburn’s headline assessment of “little hope” for improving social mobility in the UK was depressing enough, but the fact it is compounded by the “distraction” of Brexit makes it even worse. Whilst the finest minds in Whitehall desperately scramble to salvage some sense from Britain’s European disentanglement some of the most pressing issues of the day are failing to get the government bandwidth they demand. Technology is one such example.

Government is struggling to get to grips with the speed at which technology is changing the world. 90 per cent of the world’s data was created in the last two years and we now add a stunning 2.5 quintillion bytes a day to that total but our public services often run on systems built before the turn of the century.

In societies where the collective application of technology is creating phenomena like fake news and Pokemon hunting stampedes it is next to impossible for governments to keep pace with the new, increasingly virtual reality. This should worry anybody who believes in the capacity of government to do good in our lives. 

Whether you are look at driverless cars, wearable healthcare technology or drones the future is in the balance. New cars could reduce congestion, boost mobility and cut carbon emissions or they could clog up city streets, cost a fortune and obscure better transport solutions for another generation. Personal health apps could usher in greater personal responsibility, free up GPs and shift the NHS decisively from the cure to prevention or we could completely fail to capitalise on these opportunities and end up fragmenting a cherished national institution as people jump ship for a better offer. 

As ever government has some tough questions to answer.

Should we incentivise the use of shared transport to encourage people to avoid the temptation of their own personal driverless vehicle? 

Should we penalise patients who refuse to heed what their apple watch tells them?

What background checks are appropriate to determine who can fly a drone camera over your back garden?

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Hariri explains that much of what we understand to be the fabric of society is in fact an elaborate illusion. He argues that the existence of brands differentiates humans from other species by allowing images and institutions to carry significance beyond their composite parts.  In this way brands exacerbate legend, perpetuate myth and filter reality. It doesn’t matter if you’re General Motors or the Government of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, people form their views on you through a combination of fiction and fact. 

In the case of government this currently manifests itself through scepticism.  A barometer from public relations giant Edelman shows public trust in institutions continuing to tumble. This is despite effective democratic government being one of the greatest forces for good that humans possess. We risk believing Government is an oracle of unlimited resource. In fact, when you strip back the machinery of government you find ordinary people – many of whom are knowledgeable and dedicated but none of whom are superhuman. 

Brexit is a striking example of this false assumption. There was or is no coherent plan for Britain’s future in a post-Brexit world. Government does not possess a magic wand with which to solve our present pickle. We’re going to have to make it up as we go along. This doesn’t mean we will fail but it does mean less time for the people involved in government to think about other significant issues like climate change, an aging population and new technologies that are set to determine the 21st century. 

I’m especially animated about the impact of technology - that’s why I’ve started my podcast Government Vs The Robots. Whether you subscribe to the gloomy predictions that see the British labour market haemorrhaging up to 10 million jobs in the next 15 years or believe that a future of unbridled creativity and productivity funded by universal basic income will bail us out there is no doubt that technology is increasingly shaping the future. 

Away from specific technologies new patterns of political conversation are emerging as use of the internet becomes ever more sophisticated. The stunning speed at which French president Emmanuel Macron rose to power owes much to the web. During the last UK election people were able to test homemade party political advertising before paying to boost the most successful posts on Facebook or Twitter and secure a sheen of authenticity that is priceless in contemporary politics. 

Today’s public discourse encourages us to pick sides too readily. We are invited to choose stories, not to write them together.  From the lofty heights of left vs right to whether a previously unknown human should be sacked from their job immediately, there is no room for nuance.

As new technologies continue to take root in our daily lives they will open up new fissures in public opinion for people to disagree over. When it comes to technology’s impact on society and politics, for every innovation there is a utopian ideal and a more dystopian alternative. The challenge facing Britain is to strive for the former and avoid the latter. This means moving beyond the self -inflicted distraction of Brexit which will commander the biggest brains on Whitehall, hamper forward-thinking MPs and prevent bureaucracy moving from sloth-like speed to the permanent sprint needed in today’s world. 

A vision which addresses the national malaise needs to accept we’re in a hole and speak to how we can dig our way out of it. We need to people not just to predict the future but to shape it. This requires politicians and government to seize our opportunities – starting with the potential of new technology. 

Government Vs The Robots is a new podcast from Little Atoms. Subscribe now on itunes


Jonathan Tanner is the host of the Government vs The Robots podcast