22 February 2010

Scepticism about the future of politics

Filed under: politics, UKH+, UKTA — David Wood @ 10:30 pm

I ought to have realised in advance that the topic for last Saturday’s UKH+ meeting would prove less popular than usual.

The first comment from the audience, once the speaker opened up for questions, said it all:

Frankly, I’m sceptical.

Recently, UKH+ meetings have attracted audiences of 40-70 people each time, for discussions about various aspects of the future of technology.  This time, we only had 20 people in the room.

The topic for this meeting was:

The future of politics. Can politicians prepare society for the major technology challenges ahead?

Another indication of scepticism about the meeting topic came in a tweet which suggested a different flow of causation:

Seems unlikely. Can technologists prepare politicians for the major technology challenges ahead?

Politicians are held in low regard by the public as a whole, and seem to be held in even lower regard by technology-savvy members of the public.  Even the speaker at the meeting, Darren Reynolds (chair of Burnley Liberal Democrats), accepted that politicians generally lag well behind breakthrough technological developments, such as the creation of the Internet.

So what was the point of organising the meeting?  Why should a group that focuses on potential breakthrough consequences of new technology be concerned about interactions with politicians?

Well, like it or not, politicians have a big influence over what happens in society:

  • They put in place regulatory frameworks, such as govern new medical treatments and drugs with human enhancement potential;
  • They allocate central funds in favour of different kinds of research and development;
  • They (sometimes) galvanise public change.

Politicians can on occasion even be persuaded to take good decisions – as in the case which was the subject of discussion last time Darren spoke at a UKH+ meeting, back in April 2008:

  • Reasons to support and improve the Human Fertilisation & Embryology bill.

On Saturday, Darren argued that, even though the party political system is far from perfect, and often drives suboptimal behaviour, it can still achieve good outcomes.  Those of us who desire faster development and wise adoption of new technologies (such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology, robotics, and artificial intelligence) need to become more skilled in interacting with politicians.  What’s more, we have to recognise the emotional aspects of political dialog:

  • It’s insufficient to focus on rational debate about the capabilities of technologies;
  • People make decisions based on their feelings, not just on their rationality;
  • We have to understand the concerns, aspirations, hopes, and fears of different people, and tailor our communications to fit;
  • We also have to understand the power structures within society, and take these into account in our change initiatives too.

That advice made good sense to me, with my background in advocating the merits of various smartphone techologies over the years.  “Politics” – whether involving people who call themselves politicians, or merely as a messy aspect of corporate life – is something we have to learn to deal with.  If we fail to raise techno-progressive issues to the mainstream political agenda, we shouldn’t be surprised if people who are generally techno-conservative or techno-ignorant occupy positions of power in society.  Becoming a skilled influencer is much more than becoming a skilled rationalist.

But there’s another connection between politics and technology. It’s not just that politicians can influence the evolution and adoption of technology.  It’s that technology can enable improvements in how politics are conducted.  Discussion at the meeting raised good points about this connection:

  • The accelerating decline of old-style printed newspapers, and the rise of online media, alters the style of political discussion;
  • Technology could be used to enable more frequent votes, at lower cost, on matters where the public should be consulted;
  • Wider collaboration, such as used in open source software projects, or for Wikipedia, might enable better decisions to be reached;
  • Over time, more and more decisions could be referred to AI systems, to generate recommendations;
  • In due course, we’ll have to decide whether AIs deserve votes (the slogan “one man, one vote” will need re-thinking).

After the meeting finished, I found an interesting website with ideas along some of the same lines.  The Metagovernment project describes itself as follows:

The mission of the Metagovernment project is to support the development and use of Internet tools which enable the members of any community to fully participate in the governance of that community. We are a global group of people working on various projects which further this goal.

We expect governance software to be adopted first in small communities, and then to spread outward with the potential to gradually replace many institutions of representative democracy with a new kind of social organization called collaborative governance.

We conceive a world where every person, without exception, is able to substantively participate in any governance structure in which they have an interest. We envision governance which is not only more open, free, and democratic; but also which is more effective and less fallible than pre-Internet forms of governance…

I haven’t had time to look into Metagovernment more fully, but it’s potentially a good topic for a future meeting on “The future of politics”.

A different approach was (half-jokingly?) suggested by James Clement on Facebook:

I’m not so sure about ” putting choices in the hands of ordinary people…”  I’ll wait for our AI Overlords to save us!

Footnote: Darren Reynolds has been a pro-technology activist since at least 1998, when he was part of the team who who produced the original “Transhumanism Declaration“:

  1. Humanity will be radically changed by technology in the future. We foresee the feasibility of redesigning the human condition, including such parameters as the inevitability of ageing, limitations on human and artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth.
  2. Systematic research should be put into understanding these coming developments and their long-term consequences.
  3. Transhumanists think that by being generally open and embracing of new technology we have a better chance of turning it to our advantage than if we try to ban or prohibit it…


  1. No argument with any of the points here. I’d just point out that politicians follow the votes, so it’s the voting public that needs to be concentrated on, not the politicians. They’ll do whatever it takes to get voted in.

    Comment by Ben Zaiboc — 22 February 2010 @ 11:06 pm

    • Ben, I agree that politicians need to think hard about winning votes, if they want to gain power to make changes in society.

      However, at least some politicians are “conviction politicians” who are willing to try to change public opinion – and they may be prepared to wait until a future election, before public opinion has come round to their way of thinking.

      Comment by David Wood — 22 February 2010 @ 11:50 pm

  2. On technical issues, politicians have an infrastructure to advise them. In turn, this infrastructure seeks advice from a variety of organisations, for example in the form of evidence given to select committees which in turn influence planning documents.

    Influencing government on specific issues involves two things:

    Getting involved in the process above;
    Publishing information in a form that allows the general public to understand the issues. In turn, they may provide the voting pressure if an issue is controversial.

    I think the government infrastructure is doing well at making raw information available to the public, at least in some areas, and this seems to be improving.

    I wouldn’t look to politicians to “prepare society” for anything. Rather I’d seek ways to help society become better informed about important issues and so improve the quality of public influence on government policy.

    Comment by Peter Jackson — 23 February 2010 @ 1:36 pm

  3. Metagovernment isn’t about bringing the people’s voices to the politicians. It is about making the politicians 100% obsolete.

    Comment by JJ — 15 January 2011 @ 3:31 am

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