Time is running out for the government to get to grips with the digital revolution

The Conservatives risk going from being in thrall to finance to being wowed by tech. 

NS

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At the beginning of last year I wrote a blog for the New Statesman setting out why 2017 should be the year we realised we had been doing the internet wrong, the year we started putting tech power in the hands of (non-techie) people.

And there are some signs that is what happened.

The European Commission’s €2.4 billion fine of Google signalled a determination to hold the tech giants accountable and Germany’s recent ruling that Facebook’s collection of data is anti-competitive  showed at least one regulatory authority was waking up to the role of data in markets. Transport for London’s insistence that Uber needed to improve their safety practices recognised that it is a taxi firm under its tech cloak and whilst Twitter and Facebook are still far from inclusive spaces their senior leadership at least acknowledges some responsibility. More and more commentators and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are waking up to the challenges of tech omniscience, algorithmic rule, market consolidation and regulatory incapacity. 

And yet 2017 was also the year that Big Tech became a thing. A thing reminiscent of the arrogance, irresponsibility and excesses of the financial sector at its worst. Yes, in 2017 engineers became the new bankers.

As an engineer myself I find engineering’s trajectory from ‘boring but incredibly useful’ to ‘exciting but incredibly exploitative’ deeply disturbing.  To be clear there are still many fantastic engineers doing great work, saving lives, making the world work better.

But there are also too many excesses. From revealing privacy for a party piece to driving students’ drop out behaviour tech showed time and again that just because a thing can be done it doesn’t mean it should be done.

And even more disturbing for me, 2017 was the year the British government demonstrated that they do not understand tech, and worse, they won’t make the effort to.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the industrial strategy which the government published last month. There are some very good ideas in it, many stolen from our earlier industrial strategy and we are always happy when our ideas inspire the government to action. There is a lack of funding for many of their ‘grand challenges’ and a siloed approach to solving them. But the real failing is highlighted by every mention of tech.

For this government tech is going to change everything, make everything better: it will enable people to live longer, healthier lives at home, it will make the trains run on time and raise the skills of the workforce, increase the effectiveness of local government, all without any meaningful financial investment. Indeed tech is going to make the earth turn more slowly so the day is longer and British productivity can finally improve.

In short the government are making the same mistakes they made in the eighties and nineties with finance – mistakes it is true the Labour government didn’t do enough to rectify, mistakes of overly-light regulation, an inability to challenge the assertions of powerful vested interests, blinded by the complexity of derivatives, hedge funds and Black-Scholes. Now the Tories are replacing an infatuation with the money-makers with an infatuation with the code-makers and the consequences for our economy may be just as dire.

Throughout the industrial strategy when regulation is mentioned it is always about reducing it, simplifying it, cutting it. This government fails to recognise that the right kind of regulation can empower consumers and increase competition by protecting small business from abusive practices and enlarging the digital skills base. The Data Protection Bill is currently working its way through Parliament and the Tories have resisted every attempt by Labour to put power back into the hands of people or small businesses. This contrasts with Labour’s approach - for us technology is to be embraced and turned to the use of people in a way which ensures that people and businesses both win. In his Co-operative Party speech Jeremy Corbyn argued that technology ‘should be empowering workers, enabling us to co-operate on a scale not possible before’.

For me there is no doubt that technology can be transformative and democratic – with a government which knows what it is doing. This week I will be at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and then in Silicon Valley speaking to business and union leaders about how we can do this. Our current Government reminds me of out of date, out of touch, tech illiterate company management who imagine they can just fire a bunch of people, bring in some super IT system and everything will be great.

In 23 years working in tech I have learnt that whatever the problem tech is never the solution – on its own. It is always about people, processes, place – and the tech. The many not the few.

Let’s hope 2018 is not the year government learns that the hard way.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.