Politicians need to stop talking about technology

Half-baked political technobabble isn’t just embarrassing, it’s a sign of policy failure

Donald Trump

If you’ve ever had to hold a conversation with an elderly relative about anything vaguely technical – or, heaven forbid, help them with some kind of computer trouble – you’ll be familiar with the toe-curling, hair-pulling frustration of hearing them get basic concepts completely wrong. 

This, sadly, is the feeling that creeps over me every time I’m subjected to a politician or world leader talking about technology. Technology has become a pivotal part of both our daily lives and pretty much every major economy, which means that topics like ‘innovation’, ‘artificial intelligence’, ‘5G’ and other fancy-sounding buzzwords are trotted out on a regular basis, and every time it happens, it makes me want to pound six-inch nails into my living brain.

The latest example is President Trump proclaiming with smug self-assurance that hackers need to have an IQ of 197, and about 15% of your password, in order to hack you. This, as InfoSec professionals around the world gleefully took to Twitter to point out, is absolute bobbins, but it’s far from the only example of politicians hopelessly mangling technical concepts.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is no stranger to playing the armchair IT consultant, either. In one memorably cringeworthy speech to the UN last year, he spoke of “pink-eyed terminators sent back from the future to cull the human race”, and said: “In the future, voice connectivity will be in every room and almost every object: your mattress will monitor your nightmares; your fridge will beep for more cheese, your front door will sweep wide the moment you approach, like some silent butler.”

This is embarrassing to listen to for anyone who knows anything about the actual technology being referred to, and it underscores that these people haven’t the faintest idea what they’re talking about. And nor should we expect them to. Frankly, the ins and outs of topics like cyber security and AI are complicated enough for full-time IT professionals to get their heads around, and world leaders have enough to be getting on with as it is. 

However, where this becomes an issue is that it betrays the fact that precious few of their cabinets or advisers understand the topic either. Technology policy (as with every other kind of policy) should be decided and articulated by experts with a detailed understanding of the subject, but when politicians start spouting half-baked nonsense about genius hackers or killer robots, it’s painfully obvious that no such experts have gone anywhere near it. 

Instead, what we’re left with is a bunch of lay people making it up as they go along, and trying to stuff it with enough jargon that nobody notices there’s no actual substance or understanding there. If the policy behind the pronouncements was competently thought-out, then it wouldn’t sound like your befuddled great-auntie confusedly trying to explain why her iPad’s stopped working. 

Politicians don’t need to be technical experts and nobody’s going to dock them points for not having a level 3 network certification. But when they try and pretend that they do understand these concepts, it’s an embarrassment for all concerned – and far from making them seem up-to-date and on-the-ball, it just reveals the depth of their own ignorance.

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