Open Thinkering


On the new politics of technology.

PodcastOver the last couple of days I’ve listened to two excellent podcasts that I wanted to share with you. Both of them are about the relationship between technology and politics.


I’ve always found politics difficult. What I believe society should look like doesn’t fit well with the traditional two-dimensional left/centre/right representation.

On the one hand, I believe that a guiding principle should be for the State not to interfere in our lives (wherever possible). So far, so Libertarian (and usually, so Conservative).

On the other hand, however, I’m not a great believer in the ‘invisible hand’ of the free market to solve all our woes. And I certainly don’t think that billionaires should co-exist in a world with starving people. So that’s fairly Liberal and left-wing.


To me, we seem to be missing a third dimension to politics. Sometimes it’s not either/or. Sometimes it’s and/and/and.

The podcasts

Whilst I enjoy the high quality of podcasts from the BBC (In Our Time and Thinking Allowed being my favourites) my go-to podcasts when commuting come from Canadian broadcasters.

The first, Spark is hosted by Nora Young, who has a voice like butter. Not only that, but the Spark Plus podcast features the full version of interviews we only hear a snippet of in the regular podcast. It’s a goldmine of interesting people talking about important ideas.

Recently, Nora interviewed Gabriella Coleman about Anonymous. It’s fascinating:


The second, always high-quality, Canadian podcast I think is fantastic is Big Ideas from TVO. Not long ago they featured John Duffy on The Emerging Politics of Technology. The last 17 minutes or so are devoted to questions, leaving just over half an hour of really thoughtful consideration of the three-dimensional nature of politics I allude to above.

Both are well worth watching or listening to. And if you haven’t subscribed to any/many podcasts, I’d highly recommend both Spark and Big Ideas.


The left/centre/right two-dimensional version of the political spectrum has served its purpose as what I call a ‘convenient hypocrisy’. But to try and force every issue into its confines forces the metaphor to breaking point.

Apart from perhaps politicians in line with the party whip, no-one I know exhibits purely Liberal or purely Conservative behaviours. We’re three-dimensional.

What I find really interesting is that, as John Duffy points out, the political battleground is shifting from the economy to issues surrounding technology.

And that sounds like a debate I’d like to be part of.

8 thoughts on “On the new politics of technology.

  1. You cant use technology to build new models of learning unless you have a vision of the society in which you wish to deploy it to help shape it. I’ve always liked Andrew Cohill’s vision, he built the first electronic village in Blacksburg Virginia in the late 80s;
    I used to teach a history of technology unit which, via many thinkers such as Kondratieff (active in the same building as Vygotsky in Moscow in the 1920s) and Yoneji Masuda. Inspired by them I came to a conclusion that for that last 250 years socio-technical change came through a three part process of Networks, Services, Users, enabling for “unanticipated outcomes”. Caroline Haythornthwaites work is the nearest I see to this (See her E-learning, etc)
    After working in government as head of community programmes at Becta and seeing how the affordances of new learning technologies where missed, ignored and positively discriminated against by those in power I realised that the new gains in learning could only be realised in a Participatory Democracy. It’s why I subtitle my blog “participatory education for a participatory democracy” Here is my story about that;

    1. Fred

      I’ve picked this up now, because I think that Doug is doing the BBC version of politics, which sounds suspiciously like Giddens “Third Way”, which is a technocratic solution so divorced from communities and engagement that it had nothing to say on Blair’s dissipation of the popular desire for change in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the prostration before finance and policy fixes. Rather than engagement of people directly in changing their own lives we ended up with the policy makers knowing better what people wanted because they gathered evidence of consumer views rather than being engaged with issues outside Whitehall. Recent revelations about rendition from the UK show that Governments of every stance have become amoral and focused on power rather than mobilising genuinely popular energies and as a result we have the lowest turnout in local and national elections in recent history and a new Government who have no trouble with favouring the privileged against everyone else and co-opting a few practitioners who become gurus.

      The other issue I have with Doug’s piece is that it seems that you arrive at politics through an intellectual process rather than through engagement and that it is either difficult or somehow shameful to have a stance. I like Weber’s idea that politics ” is the slow boring of hard boards, it takes both passion and perspective.” (he was a conservative in conviction and affiliation). I also like Gouldner’s take on this – Referencing Gouldner, Michael Parenti said, “Our tendency to accept a datum or argument as true or not depends less on the content and substance of it, than it does on how congruent it is with the background assumptions we already have. But those background assumptions are of course established by the whole climate of opinion, the whole universe of communication that we are immersed in constantly here, which is why dissidents learn the discipline of fighting and developing their arguments from evidence, while those who work within the safe mainstream work a whole lifetime with unexamined assumptions and presumptions.” I've chosen Wikipedia as the reference point here because it seems to me that Gouldner’s concerns in the 1960s with the quiesence of academics producing research to meet funding imperatives against a need for more critical and engaged perspectives is highly relevant today and the article is accurate and detailed enough to follow up. It’s a shame they have nothing on John O’Neill’s “Sociology as Skin Trade” as that takes Gouldner’s position and adds European perspectives.

      Moving the focus of debate from economics to technology, at this stage, does no more than provide a smokescreen for the politics of financiers and the colonising of subjects with a critical potential such as history and sociology by economic and business disciplines, despite their glaring failures to provide a more secure and sustainable future See Ben Fine’s Social Capital or Researchers behaving badly”. It also accounts for a return to impoverished research and theory in sociology which is evidenced by a fear of taking sides even in the most glaring examples discrimination, injustice and oppression.

      Technology is embedded social relations and it is not a substitute for being aware of and engaging with those relations such as the ethics of using technology and components of that technology that use slave and child labour from the Congo to China. There are sides and stances to be taken here and a personal and collective ethic to consider – listen to Norwegians talking this week. If we can’t decide the sort of society we want to live in we get the technology we’re given with the inequalities that go with it from mineral extraction to the power to pay for it.

      1. Thanks for the comment Nigel. 🙂

        I appreciate your input but it comes across as:

        1. Doug’s X sounds like Giddens’ Y (to me)

        2. I don’t like Giddens’ Y

        3. Ergo, I don’t like Doug’s X

        In addition, you’ve attributed to me the idea that it’s “somehow” shameful to have a political stance? I can’t see anywhere in the above or elsewhere in my writing that would suggest that!

        (it’s also rather ironic that you accuse me of over-intellectualism before parading a list of academic work and knowledge! 😉

        1. Thanks Doug, I have been thinking further and it occurs to me that the politics of technology can lead to the Apple paradox – lots of liberal folk in the West using beautifully designed products that are produced under appalling conditions of employment, such that the employees of the subcontractor suffer from depression and a disproportionate number commit suicide. The employer response to the suicides is not to change work practices and improve conditions, but to build fences on the roof of the the factory to stop people jumping off (a technological solution). What I was saying ws that technology will not be the substitute for grappling with the key issues identified by the likes of Weber and others, that politics needs passion and perspective and therefore a commitment to engaging beyond the limited horizons of subject disciplines and particular contexts.

          I don’t think that I accused you of over-intellectualism, but noted that your reflections seemed to be about an intellectual engagement with politics as a topic rather than the approach taken in those quotes, which emphasise engagement and critique of what passes for common sense.It seems to me that Apple, while emphasising the coolness of its technology to users here, is quite happy to employ the bullying of its recently deceased CEO and wash its hands of its responsibilities to those who make its products and neither of these problems will be resolved by recourse to technology without understanding the social relations that are embedded within its current manifestations and changing the relations that support these morally dubious practices.


    1. Hi Simon, thanks for the comment and the links. I used to use the Political Compass with my GCSE History students when they were doing stuff on political history, but the other one is new to me! 🙂

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