Sunday 1 June 2014

Politicians @ Work: Weekend Essay

Large swathes of the 'sphere have no time for politicians.  From the scandalised oo-err missus knockabout of Murdoch-Guido, through our worldly skepticism here at C@W, to the trenchant hostility of Raedwald, a plague is regularly called upon all their houses.  It isn't really as simple as that, though.   

If there is any merit in long-haul flights it is the opportunity to catch up on some reading, and I have just caught up with a good Grauniad essay of last weekend, Who's Really Driving Change? by one David Runicman.  Is it the techies, or the politicos ?  And who do we want to be in the driving seat anyway ?  Some extracts, to whet your appetite or let you know you've had enough already, whichever way it grabs you.
"No one likes to see politicians using technology as an instrument of control, least of all the people who invented the technology. But we have to remember the alternative to politicians controlling the tech industry: it's the tech industry controlling the politicians. Government using its monopoly power to manipulate Google is bad. But Google using its monopoly power to manipulate government would be worse. Who would you rather controlled your government: a techie or a politician? I'm afraid we're stuck with politics.
"The Chinese political elite ... have even managed to corral the internet as an instrument of managerial politics. This is not simply an exercise in censorship and suppression (though there is plenty of that). It is also a way for the state to find out what irks its people, so as to head off those grievances before they become unmanageable. In the absence of elections, this is a valuable service ... The internet has not democratised the Chinese state. Instead the Chinese state has used it to bypass democracy. Of course, it's not easy to control something as complex and multifarious as the web: it is a cumbersome and time-consuming business; it requires lots of money and lots of coercive power. That's why the only people who can do it are politicians.
"This isn't just a story about tech. Many people retain an interest in politics – we all would like laws made to suit us – but fewer and fewer people seem interested in being politicians. It's simply not a very attractive job ... The political elite have been exploiting our inattention to shore up their own position. We would like to hold them to account for their temerity, but we lack the tools to do it: their superior knowledge of how politics works leaves us feeling impotent. People who think they can pick up politics when they need it often find that when they really need it they don't know where to find it. The professionals run rings round them. The only way to learn how to do politics is to keep on doing it, in good times as well as bad. We need more politics and we need more politicians.
"In the end, only politics can rescue you from bad politics."



Anonymous said...

Google doesn't have monopoly power,as such. Its power stems ultimately from the fact that most people use it as a search engine and don't care too much about the information it collects from them in the process.

If they went too far, people would switch to using DuckDuckGo or something pretty sharpish.

Conversely, the power of the establishment is broadly speaking inescapable. A false equivalence by Runciman, I fear.

dearieme said...

"I'm afraid we're stuck with politics." That is Mr Runciman talking his book of course.

P.S. This is one of the rudest things I've seen on WKPD: "After a book review in The Guardian of Antifragility by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, that author referred to Runciman as the "second most stupid reviewer" of his works, from more than 1,000 reviewers."

Bill Quango MP said...

That is pretty damning. To be considered the most stupid person from 1000 people but then a super stupid comes along and knocks you out in the final.

K said...

I barely made it 1/3 of the way through that Runciman article (why are his paragraphs so long?). Who has ever said that technology will replace politics?

The problem with politics (and the whole bubble that goes along with it) is that it's perpetually at least 30 years out of date but they think they're cutting edge. Even revolutionary politicians like Thatcher or Lloyd-George were enacting ideas that came out of think tanks decades earlier.

So the benefits of new tech is that it might allow us to cut down the length of the delay and bypass not politics but the right ons and conservatives who block change for as long as possible. If Runciman sees that as a bad development then it says more about him than anything.

CityUnslicker said...

the mistake of politics currently is to run too fast, not too slow. Idiotic things like letting 5 million people move into the country is not he act of people 30 yrs out of date who are too conservative to allow change.

The power of tech is in allowing politicians to do what they want now. That surely is our worst nightmate.

K said...

But why do they allow so many immigrants in? It's probably because they reached political maturity in the 60s-80s and still believe that the UK is 99% white and all and any immigration is required to forgive the sins of colonisation. How is that not at least 30 years out of date?

And why don't they hear the public's complaints? It's because the similarly out of date media long denied that there was any kind of problem and blocked all complaints with cries of "racism". The politicos can then continue in their bubble as if nothing was wrong.

The problem is not politics but the echo chamber bubble that extends around it. The bubble needs to be popped and if Runciman sees that as a threat to politics itself then that's surely an indicator of just how closed off the bubble is.

P.S. Twitter hordes are basically a part of the bubble and are often spurred and steered along by retweets from the usual suspects, who then of course write reports and editorials on this new "trend" that they helped create.

We won't see the true effects of tech on politics until even pensioners can use it. A bunch of self fulfilling prophecies on Twitter is nothing revolutionary.

Ossian said...

"But why do they allow so many immigrants in?"

Going through Soundcloud the other day came across the Immigrant Song - the lyrics struck me as to how long this immigration issue has been with us.

I think the rot stared in 1066 but luckily some of us have a wall to protect us.

Anonymous said...

Runciman covers a wide field in his essay. One message I drew from it is that western democracy may very well change into something a bit less liberal. The Americans seem well down this road and many politicians might look at China and the US and think mmmm that looks better. So can I change it? I don't practice medicine just so I can keep the doctor up to scratch, I rely on the BMA etc to do that. With politicians we are back to the old 'quis custodiat' question. I fear the dreadful reality is that there is no answer to the old 'who guards' question, if the guardians choose to snoop and control a little more there is nothing we can do. As for the techies, they will do what the money tells them to do. There used to be the piano-wire solution, but all purchases of piano-wire are closely monitored these days.

K said...


The BMA vs commoner thing is one argument. But when it comes to tech the politicians are so inexperienced it's amazing.

Even if we take the medical argument then the doctors gave up trying to "cure" me when I was 12 years old and now only ever prescribe me steroids. Steroids that I can buy for cheaper over the counter but am denied quantity because they're "too dangerous".

What's that you say? My asthma doesn't exist in the Inner Hebrides but only surfaces in England? It must be genetic bronchitis related and nothing to do with allergies! Histamines could never play a role no matter what other countries say!

Fuck 'em all.

CityUnslicker said...


Immigrants are new. there was a wave after de-colonistaion - but it was around 1.5% of the population over a decade, which had high emmigration rates to Australia etc.

Now we that every 2 years and have done since 2003.

Even the Norman conquest was of a different order, after all it was only the lords and barons who were immigrants.

Nick Drew said...

'fraid I don't have a very high regard for Taleb, his own self-regard is quite enough

1st book, Fooled by Randomness was good but by the time of Black Swan he was right up himself

why do they allow so many immigrants in? - VOTES! in every urban marginal, all candidates fall over themselves to outbid the others in assisting existing immigrants get their families in

the well-organised immigrant groups are very 'transactional' and have blocks of votes on offer

andrew said...

The power of tech is in allowing politicians to do what they want now. That surely is our worst nightmare.


Many outsourcers, discounters etc etc succeed by doing less

Consider Tesco who started their online offering 10(?) years ago by having people go round and pick stock off shelves in shops and contrast with Ocado who spent years building some lovely regional distribution centres that will bring a profit in someday...

Bill Quango MP said...

Ocado got lucky.

Morrisons, inexplicably, decided against the usual supermarket trends. Loyalty cards and online shopping.They didn't want them or need them. And when they were growing it didn't matter.
They were the cheapest.So they rocked.

But now they aren't they find themselves 10 years behind their rivals.

So they signed a 25 year deal with ocado for auto catch-up.

Both of them .. very, very lucky to get away with their lack of planning.