The Prime Minister provides an unexpected insight into the competing political narratives on technology.
Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ speech at the 1963 Labour Party conference is the stuff of political legend. Closer to the present day, Cameron and Osborne’s early years at the helm of the Conservative Party were punctuated by frequent appearances at Google Zeitgeist.
Boris Johnson has now joined the ranks of newly minted political leaders riffing on tech, using his first speech to the UN General Assembly in New York to opine on how technology is reshaping the world.
Most media attention focused on the predictably absurd delivery. But once you cut through all of that, the speech provides a remarkable insight into the interplay between contemporary politics, populism and technology.
Populist movements thrive by pivoting real or perceived grievances into a narrative that pits the people against a powerful and remote elite. Brexit has shown Johnson to be a master of the craft, styling himself as the very embodiment of the ‘will of the people’.
But any given grievance can only be exploited for so long. And so the risk is that political leaders look at all the challenges and disruption flowing from the technological revolution, and see more opportunity in simply attacking tech than in seeking properly to harness its potential and mitigate its risks.
The dystopian future painted in the first half of Johnson’s speech provides one of the most straightforward examples yet of how a politician might develop this line of argument: the people locked in a battle with technology for control of their own destiny, ruled over by unaccountable algorithms and the machinery of constant surveillance.
All of which makes the second half of Johnson’s speech that much more interesting. For here the mood is very different, and he appears to sketch the early outlines of a new, pro-tech narrative for the UK after Brexit.
This is, of course, a ridiculously tall order for a small country determined to go it alone in an increasingly interconnected world, cut off from its biggest external market and with much of its tech sector still reeling from Brexit. But it’s probably also the best shot we’ve got at salvaging something from the situation, so you can’t really blame him for trying.
And whilst far from perfect and light on detail, the building blocks laid out in the speech are basically sound: seizing the potential of new technologies to liberate and spread prosperity; a call for tech leaders to design from the outset for freedom, openness and pluralism; and an acknowledgement that there are difficult balances to be struck between competing priorities.
Pro-tech Johnson sounds a lot like how he would probably like Mayor of London Johnson to be remembered: liberal, optimistic and with a global outlook. He even chose to close with an invitation to the world to reconvene in the British capital in 2020, to forge a common set of global principles that can guide the development of new technologies.
Whether this will come to pass is another matter - as things stand it’s far from clear who will be running the country next week, let alone next year, and recent history hasn’t exactly been good for the UK’s global credentials or moral authority.
But whatever happens with Brexit, seeking to master the technological revolution is a far better prospect for the country than railing against it.
Let’s hope that one day we get a Prime Minister who is up to the task.