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 Traditional engineering values, where things work, had been replaced by a “Permanent Beta” mentality where the vendor tries to escape its responsibilities by selling the company before it has to fix its own bugs.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.
Miliband lauds OhMyNews, the Korean “citizens journalism” site. But OhMyNews, as Koreans know only too well, is a nasty, partisan political operation – a kind of Fox News – that only flourishes because it doesn’t pay its volunteer contributors. It profits from what’s called “digital sharecropping”. If this is a new spirit of volunteerism, then so is the Church of Scientology.
As for new modes of production, or a new spirit of sharing, Miliband makes a very common mistake. What we’re experiencing is an explosion of low-cost recording technologies. Much of what they record – and what Google indiscriminately caches, like a listening bug in the corner of the room – was never intended to be recorded. Much of the rest was never intended to be “published” – merely spread among one or two family members or friends. The internet has given us “a telephone network with pictures”, if you like, which we can all put to use. But to describe this as a new form of production is like claiming that the listening device is creating the conversations it records. Once one has made that mistake, it’s very difficult to see things clearly again.
No wonder the Rt Honorable Member for Google (South Shields) is confused, for when some people fall into digital utopianism, they fall in all the way – and when they bob back to the surface, it’s with what looks like a shiny, new, off-the-shelf belief system. From then on, it’s hard to persuade the sufferer that they’re fantasising about the world. Miliband has a fantasy version of technology, breaking off only to plug his “carbon trading calculator”.
In keeping with the Web 2.0 rhetoric, Miliband’s is religious. Take this purple passage:
Instead of citizens acting in isolation, unsure of whether their actions are reciprocated by others, feeling powerless in the face of large organisations and global change, citizens can feel part of a bigger project. They can create a shared willingness to act, their preferences can be aggregated, and can give rise to collective action as well as collective discussion.
But for a moment, let’s take the Minister at face value. What politicians like Miliband and the Conservative Shadow Chancellor George Osborne – another web fantasist apparently cloned, as you can see, from the same incubator (Millibourne Industries?) – are describing is how they see society ordered. It’s technocratic, and the role of the politician in this machine vision is merely to provide lubricant for the great, benevolent actors.
Unfortunately, the near-identical policies of our parties are designed to make life easy for them. Planning controls are dropped and democratic checks and balances are discarded to ease the path for who really runs the country – Tesco, Google (a newcomer), and the nuclear industry.
With so many teenagers pouring out their most intimates on the web, into MySpace and Facebook, some press pundits are wondering if these careless candid thoughts will one day come back to haunt them when they’re running for political office. These pundits have got it wrong. It’s not their adolescent indiscretions, but the things they said last week that we should take notice off. Especially when they start acting like teenagers. As our “future Prime Minister” just has.