Politicians still don’t understand the technology and are much more comfortable regulating it than working out how to use it to improve public services, says Tony Blair.
According to the former UK Prime Minister, discussions about technology should be at the heart of government: “My view is you need to reorder politics around handling this technology revolution. It should become central to the political debate.”
That’s not where we are right now, Blair acknowledged. While politicians are comfortable with regulating tech businesses, they are less familiar with how to use technology to change key sectors like healthcare or education.
“Politicians are very simple people: what they don’t understand they don’t like, and what they don’t like they will regulate,” he told the Web Summit tech conference in Lisbon.
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“This dislocation between the revolution that’s happening on the ground and the political debate is worrying and it’s dangerous,” he warned.
We’ve been here before, Blair said, noting that in the nineteenth century it took politics decades to address the impact of the industrial revolution.
Brexit: A tragic distraction
The trouble for Blair is that the sort of technocratic politics he is recommending is deeply out of fashion right now, given the rise of populism in the US, UK and parts of Europe — something he addressed with reference to the UK’s current struggle to leave the European Union.
“The tragedy of Brexit, to which I am completely and wholly opposed, is that it distracts you from the big challenges,” he said. “This technological question is the question we should be focusing on, and everything else is a distraction.”
Blair’s position is to be an optimist about the potential of technology.
“Populism exploits pessimism. When people are pessimistic about the future, they look for people to blame. If you are optimistic about the future, you are looking for the possibilities. I am optimistic about the future because I think this technology revolution will yield enormous benefits,” he said.