David Miliband, the environment minister tipped to be the next Labour Party leader by a friendly Westminster press, says “a new spirit” is afoot in the UK, brought about by Web 2.0.
Miliband said the web had polarised debate into competing extremities, where the truth was decided by whoever shouted the loudest. Traditional engineering values, where things work, had been replaced by a “Permanent Beta” mentality where the vendor tries to escape its responsibilities by selling the company before it has to fix its own bugs.
He also lamented the devaluation of expertise in favour of what he called “a permanent idiocracy”. He painted a picture of high streets decimated by home shopping, and an atomised and fragmented society that could only express itself by blogging into the digital ether. The political class, Miliband concluded, had a duty to temper this dark side of technology.
Impressive stuff, or what?
Of course he could have said all that – but unfortunately, he didn’t.
What he did say (or what his advisors scripted for him) didn’t reflect the reality of Web 2.0, only the highlights of the marketing fantasy. Politics should study this fantasy vision, he said, and then try to imitate it.
Miliband was speaking at a Google-sponsored networking event, designed to showcase the internet – and by implication, its own benevolent role in it, to the political elites.
“There is not only dispersal of power and flattening of hierarchies; there are also new forms of collective action. ‘I can’ means ‘I can collaborate’,” he said.
“The tools of production are in striking ways being put in the hands of citizens.”
And in the choicest observation of them all, he predicted that this can-do spirit will “transcend the limits of consumerism, and become a mass movement for cooperation”.
This is what the world looks like to Miliband, who we’re told is so clever he writes his own speeches. Not for the first time, having examined one of these, we’re wondering where this reputation for intellectual clarity comes from.
It’s curious when politicans advocate a course or programme and ignore its consequences. Free opiates and free beer would bring instant happiness and well-being to the population: opiates cause weight loss – so no more fat people – and beer is cheap to produce, and easily and joyfully consumed. So why not give them both away? Presumably, because the consequences outweigh the advantages. The picture of Web 2.0 which exists in Miliband’s head would be the first technology in history not to have any side-effects – or the first whose side-effects are only positive.
Even IT professionals, and those of you who have to keep IT systems running, have little appetite for it, warning us that its consequences are costly. We won’t dwell on his misconceptions, because it’s familiar territory to most of you – save to pick out two, one micro and one macro.