Guestpost: Why some politicians don’t get the internet

Continuing the thread on ACTA and all things internet, today’s guest post is from Phil Hunt, who is an internet entrepreneur and Pirate Party activist living in Edinburgh. He blogs at Amused Cynicism and is currently standing for election to Edinburgh Council for the Pirate Party in Meadows/Morningside ward.  His views are controversial but still worth a read!

Politicians sometimes say (and do) things that internet users think are clueless. Why is this? Politicians want people to vote for them, so they don’t deliberately come across as stupid. Furthermore, they know the internet is important to the economy, and don’t deliberately want to sabotage it.

So why do politicians so often say things that give off the wrong tone? I think there are a number of systemic reasons for this.

(1) They are not digital natives
The terms “digital natives” and “connected generation” both refer to people who grew up with the internet, whose daily life is interwoven with it.  As Axel Horns put it: “If your daily life is not interwoven with the Internet, many of the issues involving the [Pirate Party] might be quite invisible for you. So, we in fact are witness of a new type of ‘Digital Divide’ which is not measured in terms of having access to broadband Internet or not. Being a DSL subscriber but in fact being limited to painstakingly operate the own email account due to lack of Internet savvyness does not put you on the right side of this new divide.

These people see the internet primarily as a way of socialising with their friends and hanging out with people they share common interests with, regardless of whether they have met face-to-face (Note: the original version of this essay said “in real life” here, but to digital natives, the internet is real life).

Politicians, on the other hand, sometimes see the net as a souped-up form of cable TV where “content” is pushed at passive “consumers”. Here, for example is Pete Wishart MP analogizing the internet to a shop: “Imagine if you will, a perfect Saturday afternoon shopping, and you come across your local record store and in the window is a sign – “ Everything inside absolutely free, open all hours. That would of course be utter madness and totally unsustainable, but this is what goes on every hour of every day on the internet.”

Sure, the net is a place where we get the copyright industries’ content, but that’s merely a side function, it’s not what the net is about. The content we care about is our friends and the communities we’re part of online.

And that’s why the threat to disconnect internet users is seen as so bad, so disproportionate: it’s banning people from talking to their friends, from socialising, from being part of the communities which have meaning in their lives and through which their lives have meaning. If someone wants to take away my internet, they threaten to take away a large part of my identity. I’ll fight them to the end, and because there are millions of people like me, and we’re growing stronger every day, we’ll win.

(2) They don’t understand the technology
In Britain it’s socially respectable to be ignorant of STEM subjects. So people happily say at parties “I’m useless at maths” or “I don’t understand computers”. For example Helen Goodman MP (Labour, Bishop Auckland) blithely admits: “the minute you talk about downloading software, my brain goes bzzzz.

None of these people would every admit to being illiterate, but lacking a basic knowledge of science, technology and computers is as bad as that in the modern world. No-one was born able to read and write, they had to learn it. Just as they could learn to understand computers, if they put a bit of effort in. Voters would be reluctant to elect someone who can’t read and write; maybe in the future, they will be reluctant to elect people who’re technophobic and proud of it.

If people have a profound lack of understanding of something, then of course they won’t make good decisions regarding that thing. So it is with the internet.

(3) It doesn’t fit in with their worldview
Everyone attempts to understand the world through the filter of the categories they understand.  What if the nature of the internet doesn’t fit in with someone’s pre-defined categories? Then they will struggle to understand it. So, what is the nature of the internet?

Firstly, no-one owns it – though different people own bits of it. The internet isn’t a thing, it’s a protocol — to be precise, the tcp/ip suite of protocols — an agreement that certain patterns of bits mean certain things, and because everyone keeps that agreement, the internet works.

Secondly, everyone can use it.  So once you’re connected to it, you’re connected to all of it and can use all of it.

Thirdly, anyone can improve it. Tim Berners-Lee didn’t need to get anyone’s permission to create and deploy the world wide web. Nor did Bram Cohen need anyone’s permission to create BitTorrent.

How does this fit in with how politicians see the world? Well:

  • Nobody owns it: governments are defined by what they control.
  • Everybody can use it: in government, making laws means imposing restrictions on people.
  • Anybody can improve it: Business and government cherish authorized roles. It’s the job of only certain people to do certain things, to make the right changes.

World Of Ends explains these ideas in more detail.



11 thoughts on “Guestpost: Why some politicians don’t get the internet

  1. Pingback: Why politicians don’t get the internet | Amused Cynicism

  2. Pingback: Edinburgh Pirate Party - Why some politicians don’t get the internet

  3. Oh come on. I first got online 15 years ago, having resisted for a few years because I knew how time-consuming and engrossing it would be. I took to it like a duck to water. I soon had net-friends all over the globe, and was setting up my own web sites. Think about the net in 1997. It has transformed itself several times since then. I’ve been there through all that, and I’m there every day interacting with everything I want to interact with. I don’t yield (much) to people who were five (or whatever) in 1997, just because I was 43 at the time.

    • I’m not quite sure what point you’re trying to make. My argument is vthat politicians often behave cluelessly in relation to the internet, they often systematically make the same mistakesw over and over again, and these are some reasons why.

      As a German Pirate said recently: we didn’t want ot go into politics, we felt we had to to prevent the oldparties from destroying the net.

      • The point I am trying to make is that this “digital natives” stuff is a load of biassed claptrap. Nobody needs to have “grown up with the internet” to be entirely internet savvy. Note that all four comments on this piece have challenged the assertion that anyone over the age of 25 (or whatever) can possibly have a clue. Maybe we didn’t grow up with the internet. Maybe we went to school when mechanical adding machines were the cutting edge of technology, and remember when we read books and built lego houses instead of wittering on Twitter.

        What your piece seemed to forget is that for some of us it’s reversed. We didn’t grow up with the internet. The internet grew up with us. You came over as patronising and dismissive of this generation.

        If all you meant to point out was that parties and “politicians often behave cluelessly in relation to the internet” then that is a very fair point. Perhaps you should have confined yourself to that argument.

  4. I’m 59 next month and you’re all talking pish.

  5. Yes let’s kill the old. They don’t understand the interweb, smell and cost us money. There’s some quite serious stuff in this piece, but the level of patronisation is enough to choke a horse….

  6. Much of it is generational, isn’t it? I was lucky; due to my father’s occupation I grew up with computers and I got access to the internet through my university at the start of the ‘nineties; but, at 38, I’m right on the cusp – most people my age are pretty clueless about it. Most parliamentary politicians are at least a decade older. With rare exceptions, such as Twitter enthusiast John Prescott, they simply cannot get their heads around something that has been revolutionary in terms of communication and has reshaped social interaction. For them it has always been a matter of catching up. These things do get harder as we get older and it’s difficult to feel motivated if one’s peer group, encountering similar frustrations, largely reacts by pretending it’s not important anyway.

    • “at 38, I’m right on the cusp – most people my age are pretty clueless about it”

      I’m 48, which means I’m 4 years younger than the average MP. I’m still capable of learning new stuff, so why aren’t they? I don’t accept that people in their 40s and 50s as a general rule can’t learn stuff. If some individuals can’t or won’t, then those indivduals aren’t fit to be MPs.

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