David Cameron’s tech utopia


It was a confident David Willetts who addressed a meeting of like-minded Conservatives, only hours after the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

An “extraordinarily exciting convergence of evolutionary biology, game theory and neuro-science” was now “confirming Conservative insights”, claimed the then education minister. “Most weeks now there is a new book applying ideas from these disciplines to explain how societies function,” boasted Willetts, nicknamed “Two Brains” for his intellectual superpowers.

At last, it seemed, the Tories could refute JS Mill’s famous jibe to Parliament in 1866: “I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant that stupid persons are generally Conservative.” Thanks to what Willetts called “Conservative Modernisation 2.0”,  Conservatives were now not only nice, but clever too.

Nine years later, not only does the Cameron Tories’ endorsement of faddish airport bookstall pop science now look odd – even more so after the behavioural experts’ muddled response to the pandemic – but so is the technology utopianism that once saw the Coalition Government appoint an “ambassador” to a roundabout in Shoreditch.

That giddy era surely ended with David Cameron’s Zoom appearance before the Public Accounts Select Committee last month. Repeatedly, a perspiring Cameron insisted that Lex Greensill’s “supply chain financing” idea was misunderstood – a benevolent and charitable concept. The former prime minister may have been the last person on earth – other than Greensill himself – who thinks so.

The Cameroons quickly embraced Google’s idea of what Britain should emphasise, creating a “Tech City” brand and organisation in east London, and along the way, rechristening the Old Street Roundabout as “Silicon Roundabout”.

“There were people in very high positions who had been got at, and who were buying into, this utopian vision of technology,” thinks the former head of UK Music, Feargal Sharkey (yes, that Feargal Sharkey).

Frivolity now seems to define the era. For example, one of the most unlikely beneficiaries was the supermodel Lily Cole, a Cambridge history of art graduate whose net worth was estimated to be £7m when she received £200,000 from Nesta, the innovation quango, to set up a whimsical gift-exchange website called Impossible.com.

It invited members of the public to type in their wishes. A “cash machine that printed wishes” was duly backed by the Department for Trade and Industry, and toured America as an example of the Best of British Business.

In reality, Sharkey thinks, Silicon Roundabout attracted “kids with a private education who had neither the talent, the ambition or the ability to be brilliant engineers. We’ll move to Hackney and slum it, and pretend we’re tech entrepreneurs.”

The Cameroons were also beguiled by the promises of Martha Lane-Fox, who persuaded them that web designers creating “digital government” could radically improve public administration, and even “reset” the relationship between state and citizen.

Fox was elevated to the House of Lords, and a new agency, the Government Digital Service (GDS), was created to shine some internet magic on the civil service. “Geeks in jeans are the Treasury’s new heroes,” proclaimed one Cameron Court chronicler in a national newspaper.

In reality, the arrogant GDS leadership lacked the skills to deliver. It made about a million documents disappear. Internal reports described an organisation in disarray, with a nasty bullying streak. Once the political cover provided for them by Francis Maude’s Cabinet Office vanished, the founding lights rapidly departed.

Later, in a series of scathing papers, the management academic Professor Vishanth Weerakkody explained that aping Amazon was a madly inappropriate model for public service. He highlighted the “politically dogmatic and counterproductive agenda that brought GDS into being”, concluding that perhaps, “the right people [were] not in the right jobs”.

But it was the pop behavioural psychology Willetts endorsed that day that now strikes us as the most puzzling cause for any Conservative government to adopt. Ex-Chancellor George Osborne’s muse, the former speechwriter and columnist Daniel (now Lord) Finkelstein – described as the “the most articulate advocate for David Cameron’s political project” – became a compulsive promoter of such “behavioural insights”.

On the urging of special advisor Rohan Silva, (also a driving force behind Silicon Roundabout), a Nudge Unit was duly created. It isn’t clear whether Willetts, Finkelstein and Silva realised that the neuroscience and the behavioural science they raved about left no room for free will – surely a foundation of conservative thought. 

As Will Davies, the author of The Happiness Industry, sums it up, in the “new psychology”,  there was no room for “internal motivations, thoughts and intentions, everything that had been a core of modern philosophy from Descartes – we just abandoned that”.

It’s difficult to imagine any Conservative administration ever endorsing a philosophy as repellent as behaviourism, no matter how attractive the candy wrapper. With Nick Timothy and then Dominic Cummings’ sensing a seismic shift in the Tories’ electoral support, the party has returned to a more pragmatic view of conservatism, with an innate hostility to utopian adventures. It’s now about levelling up in Trimdon, rather than indulging the Trustafarians. 

The Cameroon utopianism lives on at The Economist, where dismantling intellectual property and a child-like faith of “digital government” (and the golden era of GDS) receive regular endorsements. But then again, this is the publication relentlessly promoting the nutritional benefit of insects to us on social media.

For Feargal Sharkey, the British public should turn round to Rohan Silva and say: “Can we have a refund please?”

First published in The Daily Telegraph.

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