Making IT good for Society

Chris Yapp explores the interplay between politics and technology, and casts his eye forward to BCS’ 70th anniversary and the 2027 UK general election

Following the recent appalling atrocities, we have been faced with calls to ban encryption and for greater efforts to take down terrorist promoting material.

Regardless of your political position the feeling that ‘something has to be done’ is in the air.

Among my social media feed, there has been a lot of ‘politicians just don’t get the internet’ moaning. Personally, I can’t see how the political rhetoric around encryption would work, without making us all less safe.

This idea that ‘they’ are the problem can be contrasted with: ‘my wife doesn’t understand me’. The best response to this is ‘try understanding her’.

One wise counsel on these matters has a simple phrase: ‘there are more politicians who get IT, than there are IT people who get politics’. I agree with that sentiment. I have known politicians across the political spectrum who actually have a good grasp of the issues and do engage intelligently.

As IT becomes more and more pervasive in society and the economy, whether we like it or not, it will raise more and more political issues.

There have been times when the dialogue between industry and government has been good, open and frank in the UK and EU.

Why is it that so few people of a scientific background, let alone IT go into politics? Thatcher was a Chemistry graduate, yet how many others. If the future of IT is, as I believe, central to building a good 21st century society, can and should we do something about it?

Alongside ‘Women in IT’ should we have a group on ‘IT in Politics’ to support professionals who wish to use their skills in the public policy arena. Borrowing a phrase ‘you’ve got to be in it, to win it’.

It is centrally important to a free society that there is a ‘freedom to innovate’ culture. However, that is not without its limits. The notion that ‘this is my business model and if you don’t like it tough’ is likely to generate a political response that won’t be helpful to anyone, especially if the voters demand action.

In the 90’s I visited one of the big IT companies. On hearing a presentation, I pointed out that what they were proposing would be illegal in Europe. The response was, ‘Europe will have to change its laws then’. Guess who won?

I have previously written in this blog about whether pervasive IT needs to take the precautionary principle more seriously.

If we are to fully realise the benefits of 5G, the IoT, big data, AI and machine learning, among others, it is worth looking back to understand how we got to where we are now and what we might have done differently.

The UK still performs very poorly in international comparisons on 4G and FTTP provision. How might IT professionals have engaged with politics in the past to avoid the challenges we face today?

So, looking forward to the 70th anniversary, here is my challenge. In 2027, the UK has a thriving IT sector and the UK enjoys an international reputation for both skills and infrastructure and the legislative frameworks to promote IT for the good of society.

What and how should we do in the next decade to make that happen? Imagine the General Election in 2027, when the new PM comes from an IT background and flies to the USA to meet President Zuckerberg. Stranger things have happened.

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    Philip Virgo wrote on 12th Jun 2017

    It is always nice to be quoted by some-one whose views I respect. During the run up to the 2010 General Election I did some analyses on those standing for the first time and it was surprising how many had IT backgrounds that they had left out of their CVs. Thus Kemi Adegoke (now Kemi Badenoch MP) was willing to admit she was a banker but not that she was responsible for assessing IT suppliers (she was ex Logica and an Electrical Engineering Graduate). One of the saddest losses of this election was Calum Kerr (ex Nortel and the only MP who understood the challenges of getting 5G infrastructure and architecture policy right.

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About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

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December 2017