“But that’s politics!” One of the other participants in our group discussing progress in tech said this to me during our work as the Copenhagen 150. “You sound like a politician”. I was making a second attempt summarising our discussion, trying to formulate our key points, after a first summary by someone else in the group.

The remark stood out for me, because of two reasons.

First, it surprised me that it seemed a new notion for the other person, as I think tech is inherently political. Tech shapes society, and society in turn shapes tech development. Tech in the way it creates or diminishes agency, creates affordances, deals with aspects like access, power (a)symmetries, externalisation of costs, in the way it gets deployed, is all about ethics. And ethics, as the practical expression of values and morals, is deeply political. Maybe less in a party political way, the politics as horse race we see play out daily in the news. That comparison might have been the source of surprise for the other participant. But definitely in the shape of a societal debate about desirability, impacts and intended and unintended consequences. At the start we had a great conversation with Denmarks ambassador to the tech industry (photo), which is a very clear expression of the political weight of tech, and just before the Copenhagen 150 I listened to a very good conversation between Casper Klynge, the tech ambassador, and former Dutch MEP / now Stanford international policy director Marietje Schaake, which rightly and firmly put tech discussions in the geopolitical arena.

Second, the “you make it sound like politics” bit stood out for me, because it gave me a jolt realising that I should behave more purposefully on a political level. Some 25 years ago I briefly engaged in local city politics, but soon realised such games weren’t for me, and that a faster way to change is to start creating the little impacts you want to see. Not of the ‘move fast and break things’ type, but out of the belief that if you create new effective behaviours those will be contagious, and in aggregate lead to culture changes. It is how I ended up in open data for instance, I was already working on open government but not particularly getting anywhere, and then realised open data as a newly emerging topic provided a much better inroad to changing governance. It was seen as a tech-only topic by most politicians and thus unthreatening to the status quo, whereas it was clear to me that if you start pulling the strings of how data gets shared, you soon start pulling over the entire processes that lead to the creation and usage of that data, as its publication creates new realities that generates responses. Politics obviously always plays a role concerning internal relations within a client. A large part of my international work is about diplomacy and cultural sensitivity too. But treating it as a political endeavour in its own right is different. I realise I may be in a place in my work where that deserves to have a much more deliberate role.

Some of the things I found worth reading in the past few days:

  • Although this article seems to confuse regulatory separation with technological separation, it does give a try in formulating the geopolitical aspects of internet and data: There May Soon Be Three Internets. America’s Won’t Necessarily Be the Best
  • Interesting, yet basically boils down to actively exercising your ‘free will’. It assumes a blank slate for the hacking, where I haven’t deliberately set out for information/contacts on certain topics. And then it suggests doing precisely that as remedy. The key quote for me here is “Humans are hacked through pre-existing fears, hatreds, biases and cravings. Hackers cannot create fear or hatred out of nothing. But when they discover what people already fear and hate it is easy to push the relevant emotional buttons and provoke even greater fury. If people cannot get to know themselves by their own efforts, perhaps the same technology the hackers use can be turned around and serve to protect us. Just as your computer has an antivirus program that screens for malware, maybe we need an antivirus for the brain. Your AI sidekick will learn by experience that you have a particular weakness – whether for funny cat videos or for infuriating Trump stories – and would block them on your behalf.“: Yuval Noah Harari on the myth of freedom
  • This is an important issue, always. I recognise it from my work for the World Bank and UN agencies. Is what you’re doing actually helping, or is it shoring up authorities that don’t match with your values? And are you able to recognise it and withdraw when you cross the line from the former to the latter? I’ve known entrepreneurs who kept a client ban-list of sectors, governments and companies, but often it isn’t that clear cut. I’ve avoided engagements in various countries over the years, but every client engagement can be rationalised: How McKinsey Has Helped Raise the Stature of Authoritarian Governments, and when the consequences come back to bite, Malaysia files charges against Goldman-Sachs
  • This seems like a useful list to check for next books to read. I’ve definitely enjoyed reading the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Nnedi Okorafor last year: My year of reading African women, by Gary Younge

Some links I thought worth reading the past few days

In a well filled Vereeniging in Nijmegen, Kishore Mahbubani gave a good speech on his perspective on the rise of Asia and the response the West in his eyes should formulate to that. It turned out I had picked up quite a bit already from fragments on tv, and flicking through his book last weekend, as several sections of his talk were verbatim renderings of earlier things I saw. It is, I know, unavoidable when you are asked to share the same story on several occasions and in several locations. Internet and the casual transparancy that comes with camera and blog equipped audiences do that. It just became a lot more apparant because they also showed excerpts of the excellent VPRO documentary before Mahbubani went on stage. It was good to be there though.

The basic argument is that the rise of Asia is unstoppable, already on demographics alone, but that it does not constitute a threat as Asia is emulating several worthwile aspects of the Western world. Those seven (of course seven…) are:

Free market economy
Science and technology
Meritocracy
Pragmatism
Culture of peace (with the EU as an example, but leaving out the debacle of the Balkan wars I’d say)
Rule of law
Education (the start of it all of course)

In short Mahbubani says Asia is succesful because they are adopting the things that are important to the West as well. The rise of Asia is now approaching the Islamic world from the east, which he said was surprising as he sees the modernization of the orient and Northern Africa as a more logical European task and influence.
The response he would like to see Europe make consists of four parts:
1) share power in bodies like the UN, IMF, Worldbank etc.
2) create a lasting strategic alliance with Asia (between EU and ASEAN primarily) and stick to it (unlike the last Asian economic crisis when Europe ‘walked away’)
3) create a long term vision towards the Islamic World (which he said should be a no-brainer given the mutual influence we had on each other over the centuries, with the Islamic world conserving Greek and Roman culture and knowledge through the European dark ages)
4) work towards a solution of the Palestine-Isreali conflict (now that both the Arab world and the Israelian PM seem to have grown tired of it all)