21. september 2012 Astrid Maria Bigoni

Thoughts on an interview with Ben Hammersley: I’m not sure I’ve won. Or what our politicians can learn from the Internet

Some weeks ago at The Conference, the annual conference on new media in Malmö, I had the opportunity to interview the British Internet technologist, innovator in residence at the Centre for creative and social technologies at Goldsmiths University of London, and keynote speaker Ben Hammersley. While the interview (and, consequently this blog post) was supposed to concern his book 64 Things You Need To Know Now for Then, we spent most of the time discussing the important lessons we can learn from the Internet. These thoughts stayed with me.

Then Saturday August 24th arrived. That day marked the culmination of months of personal dissillusion with Danish media and politics. Around this time a year ago, I’d sensed a change; new possibilities were in the air. The economic crisis had brought us together. People wanted change and were conjuring up new ideas and solutions for what appeared to be a broken system. Then, the Danish national election – I thought change was possible. But within just a couple of weeks I realised I’d been naive. If there was going to be a change, it was going to be for the worse. But more on that later. Back to my interview with Hammersley. And firstly…

“We’ve won!” he says

So congratulations to you and me. We, the geeks, were told that working with the Internet wasn’t a real job, that we wouldn’t ‘win’. Now, we have taken over the world. Not the whole world of course. Your boss still has a say. And, unless you work in the creative digital arena, chances are high he or she doesn’t understand digital. Perhaps I’m generalising here, but more than once I’ve experienced my bosses gazing back at me with a blank stare when I’ve talked about how things work online. It turns out I’m not the only one.

“You basically have two groups of people,” says Hammersley. “You have the group that have embraced modern technology because they use it. And then you have the people who have not embraced and don’t use it. Unfortunately it turns out that an awful lot of the people running the world, belong to the group of people that doesn’t understand technology,” he says.

This is apparent to me in a number of different areas and lays the foundation for many fruitless discussions for example on copyright. Discussions that in my opinion rise because people don’t discuss from a common premise.

Consider Lord Mandelson’s reaction to the naked pictures of Prince Harry from that trip to Las Vegas. 

“There is a massive cultural gap,” explains Hammersley. “We live in an era where technology defines culture. There isn’t really a single thing in your life right now that hasn’t been touched by the Internet. Your entire culture, my entire culture, is mediated through digital technology.” So what does this mean for you and I?

First, we need translators

Even though we’ve ‘won’ – some may even say we rule the world – our government leaders don’t necessarily understand how the Internet and technology have changed the game. But they are the ones writing and passing laws that affect us. Sometimes their ignorance becomes apparent in their law making process, consider for example the EU’s plan to clean the Internet of terrorists. A plan that seems a bit idealistic when you consider the global scope of the web.

This cultural gap calls for a translation layer. Hammersley emphasised over and over again in his keynote talk that it is the duty of those who understand this new world, to teach others. He says, “It is our job. We won. We proved them wrong. We rule the world now. It is time to do something cool with that.”

Principles over plans

Both during his talk and in his book, Hammersley talks of Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law is a computing term which states that every 18 months a chip doubles its capacity. As a result, our ability to plan ahead has been compromised. This applies to politicians, city planners and architects as much as it does to other people. In his book, Hammersley says:

“Long term planning – across the generations – is something that human beings have never been very good at, but we urgently need to get better. It might also help if we could invest our excitement about the future in those technologies that imagine change as something constant and natural to be revelled in, rather that something that shoves an otherwise static society in a particular direction, or fixes it in a frozen moment of development.” Quote from the book.

How do we do that then? How can we plan for a future, in which our technical capabilities will double every year? It is not like the Internet and new technology made lawmaking and politics dispensable.

“We have to have a long discussion about what our principles are. An awful lot of the time we have swapped principles for plans. If you have got guiding principles, then, no matter what the future brings, you always know where you are going. Because it is easy to make those decisions. We can’t make plans because the rest of the world won’t agree with us. But we can have principles.”

There’s no substance in news

Principles, not plans. Hmm. Let me get back to August 24th. That was the day that the Danish Prime Minister chose to comment on her husband’s sexuality in connection with the ongoing tax case – short introduction to the case here.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to make of all this. In some respects this isn’t about the case and the news reporting on it. The substance in Danish politics has been replaced by personal scandals and discrediting. Most news outlets reported on this case – of course they would, it is their job to find the news and report it. But it is also their duty to take a stand and ask important questions like: what falls into the category of ‘news’? Is this relevant to the public? I feel like they’ve neglected that duty for a long time.

Media, politicians and the Internet

So what does the Danish media and politics have to do with Ben Hammersley and new technologies? When asked the most important message that he would send to policy makers and politicians, Hammersley answered: “Making a connection is easier than making a division. Modern politics are all based on dividing people. It doesn’t help. If you find yourself constantly fighting or starting fights rather than trying to make alliances and forming groups then you are doing it wrong. The great social change that the Internet has brought about is the ability for people to form groups. And the fact is that these groups do form across borders and across time for everybody’s benefit. People don’t form groups to fight other people. They form groups to support each other.”

And that is exactly what we do online. We contribute and produce content because we like to. Our content travels across borders and helps us make new friends based on our interests. The contrast with everyday politics couldn’t be any greater

“Politics at the moment are all about fighting each other. Not about supporting. So if there is one great thing that people need to take from the Internet it is that we want to collaborate. We want to feel part of a bigger thing and if you as a politician can do that for the good. Then you will be very successful and you will make the world a better place.”

My web literacy is high so perhaps I’ve won. But I don’t feel like a winner. I feel disrespected as a citizen and underestimated as a media consumer. My hope for the future is that we – the geeks – keep telling the stories of the Internet to the rest of the world and that the leaders of the world will start listening to our stories. Only then will things change for the better.

You can start by giving 64 Things You Need To Know Now for Then to your boss, you know, the one with the blank stare.

If you made it so far …

you might be interested in reading Ben Hammersleys speech to the IAAC

and you might also be interested in listening to why NPR Congressional Corresponden Andrea Seabrook left NPR – about how she got tired of reporting the lies of politicians. –> And I’m not going to take it anymore on On The Media

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  • http://www.kimbach.org Kim Bach

    Great report! Sad that I missed the conference. I’ve been a huge fan of Ben Hammersley since he addressed Reboot 8 wearing a kilt!

    Maybe we should stop accepting/using a label like “geek”, frankly I think we’ve ALL (humanity) won (qualified with “mostly”: all sorts of things – good and bad – came out of the woodwork ;-) with the tools of free speech the Internet has given us).

    Without the communications technology I would have written exactly zero words, besides technical documentation, now I have a blog with 700 posts, that I’m mostly quite proud of.

    Regarding Moore’s law, progress itself hasn’t been that swift, my first program was written in BASIC in 1977 and, so far, the last program I wrote was written in BASIC in 2011, for sure different dialects, the point is that our tools, and brains, are lagging behind.

    I’m pretty positive about politics and changing it for the Internet age. I’m not too impressed with our MPs, but the local-politicians, and especially the civil-servants, are quite easy to get to listen.

  • Astrid Maria Bigoni

    Thanks, Kim.

    I agree on the geek label. And I also agree with you that the Internet has, in broad terms, benefitted us all. But I also think that we have a lot to work on. The Internet is, in some ways, a reflection of human culture – and in that respect we have all the flaws and inequality that we have off-line.
    As you, I wouldn’t have produced as many words as I have now, had it not been for technology. However, I think that we should be cautious not to praise the Internet for more than it’s worth.

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