What Would Foucault Do?

[This one was on the BBC News website on October 16]

Broadband speeds may remain painfully slow, but the desire to provide access for all will be driven by the pressing need to save money by reforming public services, cutting costs and improving efficiency, whoever is in power.
So we’ll see universal access simply because the financial benefits of online public services will only be realised if nearly everyone has access to them, although there will always be a need to provide offline provision for those who cannot be served effectively through a screen and keyboard and I, like many others, will fight for this.

Over the next five years we can expect to see increasing use of web-based tools as the primary way of accessing state-provided services. I already renew my Road Tax, register to vote, pay my VAT and Income Tax, hand over the money for my TV Licence and pay the occasional parking penalty charge online, and I expect that soon I will have no need to write or phone a single agency to transact my business with government at local or national level.

The drive to digital will also be fuelled by increasing demands for transparency, as the crisis of faith in our MPs created by the revelations about expenses claims works its way through the political system, while a desire to emulate Obama will give extra impetus to the  Googleisation of Government IT and initiatives like data.gov.uk. Any resemblance  to its transatlantic cousin, data.gov, which speaks proudly of its exciting mission to ‘increase public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by the executive branch of the federal government’, is of course entirely deliberate.

But introducing digital technologies into society is not a simple matter of providing computers, websites and internet connections and then getting on with it.  As we have seen with attempts to use computers in classrooms new technologies do not automatically lead to a positive outcome. Within the education sector the debate over the real usefulness of laptops in school and the gradual replacement of printed texts with ebooks is becoming increasingly rancourous as evidence piles up on both sides, and we should expect similar arguments elsewhere.

The stakes in this particular game of transforming government are especially high, and we cannot afford to take a naive view of moves towards digital democracy. Fortunately the new generation of social theorists, people who have grown up with computers in their lives and are as familiar with Facebook as they are with Foucault, can offer some guidance in this new area.

One of the most important thinkers is Will Davies, who cut his teeth working with economist Will Hutton at the think tank The Work Foundation, where he was a lead on its groundbreaking iSociety project.  He is now a research fellow at the Said Business School at Oxford University, and his papers and blog posts provide a much-needed analytic contrast to the ill-judged optimism that comes from those who understand neither technology nor society but see political or commercial advantage in promoting one as the solution to the ills of the other.

A good example of his work can be found in a recent blog post, where he offers a wide-ranging examination of the ‘post-bureaucratic’ state that seems to be on offer from David Cameron’s Conservatives as a consequence of the widespread application of the ‘power of information’ to public services.

Davies brings Weber, Hayek, Weinberger, Arendt and even Habermas to bear on the question of whether decentralising information through online services like data.gov.uk can offer us good government, concluding that while it may provide transparency and even accountability it can never sustain the legitimacy that a democratic state provides.

He offers a dense, complex argument, written for an audience familiar with the thinkers he refers to and who will appreciate the joke when he mentions ‘Hayek’s resolutely post-modern claim that objective knowledge is not only impossible, but a more dangerous ambition than the distributed opinion represented by the marketplace’.

Davies’ writing is not for everyone, but it should be essential reading for anyone whiowants to develop a sound understanding of the implications for society and political structures of the technological change that we seem to have accepted as inevitable. It is the sort of thinking that we desperately need if we’re to understand the technological future being offered to us by politicians of all major parties – and in all developed countries – as they are seduced by Google, Microsoft and Facebook into thinking that search, social networks and software can help us to solve the world’s many problems.

One of the problems with the people who lead great technological revolutions is generally that they have no real understanding of politics, philosophy, sociology, literature, economics or indeed anything other than their new technology and the business model they are using to change the world.

We have to hope that the politicians who are dragging us into the digital tomorrow take time to read and consider the wider issues raised by people like Will Davies instead of just signing up to the programme. Otherwise we will all be the poorer.

Bill’s Links

Power of Information Taskforce: http://powerofinformation.wordpress.com/ (rather quiet lately)

Will Davies: The Post-Bureaucratic State http://potlatch.typepad.com/weblog/2009/10/what-is-the-postbureaucratic-state.html

3 Replies to “What Would Foucault Do?”

  1. I heard George Osborne expounding his digital ‘vision’ at the RSA last year – quite well-informed, quite broad, quite strategic and quite forward-thinking, but: no chance politicians are “taking us there”. Any kind of Pied Piper notion would require a Big Swinging Dick – perhaps Foucault’s famed pendulum might fit the bill?

  2. Another thing which is essential for anyone connected with digitalbritain and digitalengagement is to do the maths.
    At the moment the obsolete copper is congested, leading to slow speeds, disconnections and time outs. Broadband for the masses has a bad reputation. Capping and throttling and other traffic management techniques used by ISPs is keeping it moving but only just. Contention ratios have to be around 200:1 on a pipe for an ISP to make a profit. 200 people sharing 8 meg feed. The maths say half a meg is needed to stream iPlayer. OK, so what happens when 200 on the same pipe want to stream? Throttling. What happens when someone regularly streams? Capping. (small print).
    The whole thing is a shambles, and until politicians and decision makers do their homework they will continue to be conned by the telcos and barmy quangos.
    Until we all have ubiquitous affordable connections then this country will stay in the slow lane and the potential to innovate, thrive, prosper and drag ourselves out of the recession will be lost. The telcos are in it for the money, and we need the politicians to wake up and see the truth and act. NOW.

    ‘Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society’…’There are more ideas on earth than intellectuals imagine. And these ideas are more active, stronger, more resistant, more passionate than “politicians” think. We have to be there at the birth of ideas, the bursting outward of their force: not in books expressing them, but in events manifesting this force, in struggles carried on around ideas, for or against them. Ideas do not rule the world. But it is because the world has ideas (and because it constantly produces them) that it is not passively ruled by those who are its leaders or those who would like to teach it, once and for all, what it must think’.
    Michel Foucault

  3. Bill, I’d be curious to read if you had any specific previous revolutions in mind when you wrote the following. And if so, which ones?

    One of the problems with the people who lead great technological revolutions is generally that they have no real understanding of politics, philosophy, sociology, literature, economics or indeed anything other than their new technology and the business model they are using to change the world.

    I suppose this is the other side of your 10 cultures thesis?

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