“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.